Charlie “Yardbird” Parker was a saxophonist of such awe-inspiring daring and invention that he straight-up hypnotized two generations of jazz players. Between 1945 and maybe 1985, it was rare to hear a new musician on just about any instrument who wasn’t either a Bird acolyte or, just as clichéd, someone running the opposite direction, desperate to escape Bird’s shadow.
Joe Lovano emerged as a young master on, mainly, tenor saxophone in the mid-1980s. Almost immediately, his sound seemed naturally to reflect a time before Parker—bringing to mind Coleman Hawkins, for example—and a time after Parker, when a greater freedom was possible. Still, Bird was a such a massive influence that it’s no surprise to learn that Lovano’s father (a great Cleveland area tenor man) schooled him in Charlie Parker from the git-go.
Now, after a long career of revealing relatively little Parker obsession, Joe Lovano leads his working quintet through a complete program of Bird Songs. And, true to his mature form, Lovano does it no mimicry and considerable freedom.
Lovano’s band is dubbed “Us Five”, presumably a name meant to dispel any sense that Lovano is the singular attraction. And it’s true. Pianist James Weidman has come into his own with this band; bassist Esperanza Spalding is now essentially a bigger star than Lovano; and the drumming is so key here that Lovano has two, Otis Brown and Francisco Mela, each of which is as serious as a heart attack. The band’s first outing (Folk Art from 2009) was all-original, sounding both rootsy and loosely free. The same spirit prevails here, with the band’s take on the precise and lightning fast bopper being more of a clattering, mid-tempo groove or free-for-all than a fleet bopfest.
“Dewey Square” is a nice example of a loose but smart take on Parker. Brown and Mela kick it off with a cracking but informal Brazilian groove, over which the band jumps in to play the melody. But rather than continue with the usual saxophone and piano solos, the performance stops, then restarts as a killer percussion jam, then reboots a second time to let Spalding play over the two drummers. Eventually Weidman joins with a soulful statement, and only then does Lovano let loose with a tumble of his own solo. It is an unconventional arrangement, and it helps you to hear Parker tune in a new way.
Lovano manages this trick many times. “Donna Lee” is a long tenor solo at medium ballad tempo from start to finish, suggesting Hawkins more than Parker, yet drawing on the more modern vocabulary suggested by the tune’s chords. Both “Moose the Mooche” and “Passport” tear apart the original melody and use a repeated single motif to organize a new arrangement that is, essentially, original. “Moose” sets up a loosely loping vamp on this motif, then provides relief in a short swing section, followed by walking motion for solos by Weidman and the leader. “Passport” starts with a melodic fragment, repeated in 7/4 time, a walking melody statement, then double-time swing, with each of these feels shuffled and reshuffled during solos. Would Parker have thought of such an approach? Lovano suggests that Bird was always a step ahead of the pack, so why not?
Lovano includes a few tracks here that are either original compositions or brilliant mash-ups of Bird that are essentially new. “Birdyard” sets up a repeated piano vamp using the first phrase from “Yardbird Suite”, but he modulates it into different keys as he blows crazy on his double-soprano “aulochrome” horn, also using a different repeated motif. Madness! Also terrific is the short “Blues Collage”, with a straight alto horn, piano, and acoustic bass playing three different tunes in a fugue-like format.
An important note about this recording (and really about the Us Five band as a whole): a casual listen is not enough. Putting Bird Songs on the ol’ hi-fi during dinner at low volume will only bewilder. Few of these performances present a broad and bold melodic “head”, followed by dramatically constructed solos, with a return to the melody at the end. The twin drummers tend to clutter up the sound, creating messy polyrhythms. And Lovano himself solos with a fuzzy tone and meandering sense of drama rather than a steely edge and logically compelling themes and variations. When Us Five assays “Koko”, for example, it is just with the two drummers and tenor saxophone, Lovano pulling apart the tune in small pieces, then worrying each of those pieces in his exploratory solo. The theme appears only briefly and at the end. My own first mental draft of this review was: too loose, too unfocused. The truth is, it was my initial listening that suffered those infirmities.
The best stuff here isn’t all that tough to love, however. A super-swinging “Lover Man” is given a ride on the “G mezzo soprano”, a new horn (darker in tone and pitched a minor third lower that the usual B-flat soprano sax) Lovano digs into, and with distinction. The final track is a long exploration of “Yardbird Suite”, starting as a hymn then gradually shifting into a rambling swing, allowing an outstanding piano solo, then finally landing eventually into some kind of triple time that winds back down to a ballad.
Joe Lovano is coming up on two dozen albums for Blue Note Records, yet these ears aren’t remotely close to being tired of him. Plus, he always wears a cool hat on his album covers. The guy is a saxophone miracle, a generous bandleader, and a sartorial ambassador for the cool. If his music requires a careful listen, well, the man has earned it.