21 February 2011

Review: Bird Songs

Joe Lovano Us Five
Bird Songs

NPR recently ran a list of the 100 quintessential jazz songs, as determined by a popular poll. As you might expect, most of the songs on the list were over 40 years old. The top-ranked song recorded after 1970 (at number 8) was Birdland, by Weather Report. Nothing on the list was recorded after 1980. I found this especially annoying, since polls like this only reinforce the biases of some that jazz is dead.

Yet while a poll venerating old material annoyed me, I greatly anticipated an album doing just the same thing, Joe Lovano Us Five's Bird Songs. A tribute to the music of Charlie Parker, Joe Lovano has spearheaded a self-conscious look backward that remains fixed in the present. Lovano's quintet, in its second offering for Blue Note, reworks and performs a number of Charlie Parker tunes without reflecting a slavish devotion to the past.

This is not Lovano's first foray into the repertoir of the bebop era. His 2000 nonet album 52nd Street Themes included a heavy dose of Tadd Dameron. But while that album featured a number of sidemen in varying groups, Bird Songs is performed by a group that is very comfortable with itself, and this comfort allows for more risk-taking and spontaneity. Pianist James Weidman is a seasoned pro who knows how to best accompany Lovano, leaving him plenty of space while providing a light counterbalance to Lovano's gruff tone. fluidly works together

Plenty has been said about bassist Esperanza Spalding's solo work in light of her surprise Grammy win last week, but this album finds her in a different setting than her own albums. Even without the spotlight, her contributions are crucial. With two drummers constantly shifting between background and foreground, Spalding is a strong rhythmic anchor. And when she solos, as on Yardbird Suite, she shows the incredible chops that made even Grammy voters take notice, dexterously working all over the neck of her bass.

A number of tunes have a Caribbean feel, with drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela making ample use of the multifaceted tambres, inflections, and feels afforded by featuring two drummers. Barbados, Birdyard and Dewey Square all capture a calypso influence which occasionally popped up in Bird's work. But here it is played up, to my delight. A Parker tribute with only bebop rhythm would both sell his own music short and provide an unnecessary restriction to the possibilities inherent in his tunes.

Lovano dares to take Parker's tunes in unexpected directions, though, like when he takes the Miles Davis tune Donna Lee, originally a barnburner, at a strolling pace behind the freeish drumming of Brown and Mela. On Birdyard, a variation on Yardbird Suite, Lovano switches to Aulochrome, a polyphonic saxophone (the first of its kind), alternating between unison, dissonance, and consonance in a way that suggests the competing songs of birds. On Ko Ko, a trio with his drummers, Lovano shows how easily he can carry a tune on his own with his forceful sound and fiercely individual personality. As with the rest of this album, the performance fittingly reflects an artist who knows himself well enough to take the listener on personal explorations of sound, with a group who also knows the way to go.


Track Listing:  Passport; Donna Lee; Barbados; Moose the Mooche; Lover Man; Birdyard; Ko Ko; Blues Collage; Dexterity; Dewey Square; Yardbird Suite
Personnel: Joe Lovano, saxophones; James Weidman, piano; Esperanza Spaulding, bass; Francisco Mela, Otis Brown III, drums

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