There is a very good reason why tenor and soprano, as well as sometime alto, saxophonist Joe Lovano is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. It’s because he has devoted his life to finding new ways to express improvised melodic conceptualizations, because his harmonic language continues to evolve and develop, and because he has found new means for elaborating on and breaking through rhythmic patterns. But mostly, because Lovano continues to practice and develop his instrumental technique, as well as develop his art in a ceaseless drive to find musical meaning in an ever evolving musical world. His inexhaustible drive for unattainable perfection is not only seen in a lifetime catalog of incredible recordings, but also, is well on display in Bird Songs.
Lovano’s latest recording is a project from his Us Five band. Uniting two drummers, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, the young wunderkind Esperanza Spalding on bass – whose own CDs as a leader are incredible testaments to her multifaceted abilities - and pianist James Weidman, this group has been making the jazz world stand-up for years in not just notice but amazing appreciation. Among their many awards are the Jazz Journalists Association naming them Best Small Jazz Ensemble of 2010 and winning Best Jazz Group of the Year in the 2010 Down Beat Critics Poll.
Bird Songs is a collection of 11 tracks centered around the music of Charlie Parker. This is, however, no mere homage. Instead. it is a reinvestigation, examination and developmental exploration of not just the music Parker played, but also of the construction of the elements assembled by Bird in crafting these timeless classics.
Moments of incredible power balanced by the utmost in beauty abound throughout the disc, tied together by an inquisitive spirit of rediscovery. These are tunes every jazz musician must learn as they grow and develop. To re-explore them at a high level and to find ways of invigorating into the 21st century seems logical, so why has it been done so rarely?
Highlights include a powerfully Elvin Jones-ish out chorus at the end of “Moose The Mooche.” Lovano’s tenor doesn’t guide Brown and Mela, he pushes them through force of character and tumbrel strength. The flipside is a delicate elucidation on “Loverman.” Here Lovano’s dancing G mezzo soprano saxophone lines are balanced by the totally grounded yet outwardly bound comping of Weidman. The polyrhythms of the percussion are kept in focus by Spalding’s crafty lines. You almost don’t notice her, until her delightfully playful solo, because of the superb craftsmanship of her abilities. If there is a single member who keeps everyone “on the page,” even when they go off it, it is her way of finding the perfect contrapuntal foil to Lovano’s questing nature even when the drummers find themselves locked into rolling thunder punctuations that remind every one of jazz’s communicative nature.
Overall, this is music that not only moves the first time listener, but the jazz aficionado as well. You don’t have to look for the subtle interplay between the drummers and Lovano’s single lines in the trio rendition of “Ko Ko” to appreciate how beautiful or rich the music is. But for those who do wish to explore further levels of musical evolution, hold on tight, because this is a wonderfully exciting wild ride.