Joe Lovano has a burly, garrulous way with his tenor sax, a big man’s style around the horn that is nevertheless nimble and athletic. His touch can be light, but the overall sound of a Lovano band is wide and generous. And that’s certainly true of this latest release from the leader’s working quintet. Us Five has that big sound: James Weidman plays piano with a sprawling expansiveness, either Esperanza Spalding or Peter Slovov lays it thick on bass, the dual percussion attack of Otis Brown and Francisca Mela covers everything, and then there’s the inclusion on some tracks of guitarist Lionel Louke.
Another way of thinking about it is that Cross Culture is a bit of a mess. Not a bad mess, but kind of a cluttered affair—lots of sounds moving all around in the sonic space. On “Myths and Legends”, the cymbals clatter and the bass dashes as Lovano meanders all around the place—it’s like a conversation that goes in five directions at once. “In a Spin” states a choppy stop ‘n’ go melody for tenor and guitar and then—b-zam!—the band starts into a series of solos that careen over an idiosyncratic lurching rhythm. Lovano puts in some parts on his crazy Aulochrome, a polyphonic saxophone that can play two (kind of purposely out-of-tune) notes at once, and there is a long passage of dancing counterpoint for Louke and the leader. It’s nervous music. It unsettles you a bit.
All of which makes it sound like I don’t dig this band. But I do. This is a fleet and liberating group. While they are not doing anything revolutionary (compared to, say, Wayne Shorter’s current quartet, they seem relatively traditional), this band plays with freedom and a natural ease. Nothing is too formal or stiff. On “11PM”, the rhythm section simply cooks while Lovano plays a fluent vocabulary of free-bop around them. Louke enters on guitar, they joust, then Weidman is stabbing behind the leader on piano, and eventually he takes a jagged solo. Tempos shift and bend. Anything might happen because the structures are built to be loose from the start. “Journey Within” has the feel of an Ornette Coleman tune because the melody is stated by Lovano (on soprano) and Louke in a unison that is purposely out of sync.
But some of the music on Cross Culture gets aimless rather than loose. “Drum Chant” sets up a compelling two-drummer groove, with Louke eventually joining like a funk guitarist, but the solos that float over it all don’t really make much of the setting. And I’m not sure what to make of “Golden Horn”, which begins and ends with a bass solo and then some marimba-sounding percussion effects, allowing the leader’s soprano to sit in the middle and noodle about.
For me, Cross Culture is strongest when it goes straight at the jazz tradition. “Royal Roost” is one of the 10 originals here, and it sounds like a classic slab of mid-tempo swing, with Lovano’s muscular tenor sax working the middle register beautifully. I like the band’s version of Vernon Duke’s “Star-Crossed Lovers” even better. On a majestic standard like this, with Lovano caressing the melody in hushed and then eventually more urgent tones, the band’s looseness is a counterpoint rather than the story itself. Lovano allows himself to veer off of straight tonality often, letting the ballad have these gorgeous little sour patches, and you can hear that Us Five is a band that is purposely letting tradition slide around impressionistically.
This isn’t my favorite Us Five outing, but this approach remains fruitful and fascinating. For me, Louke’s sort-of acoustic guitar just doesn’t stand up to Lovano’s killer tone, and so this record seems like a mismatch too often. The pure quintet tracks (such as the easy-to-love opener “Blessings in May”) sound the most balanced and right. “Modern Man” drives right at the groove with Lovano weirding out on that skeevy Aulochrome, and you realize again that the point of this band is to combine propulsion with a certain bending of the norms. Nothing is entirely out of control, but a shade of difference prevails. This isn’t abstract art as much as it is the jazz equivalent of Cezanne’s still life fruit: recognizable but constantly about to fall off the strangely tilted post-impressionist table.
It’s great to have this band recording for Blue Note again in 2013. The label is off to a great start in 2013. Just what the doctor ordered. Take two Joe Lovano and call me in the morning.