Not willing to simply play Charlie Parker’s music in a straight-ahead fashion, Lovano shapes the compositions to reflect Bird but not to copy him. His arrangement of "Barbados" is a perfect example of keeping the basis of the tune but mixing it up rhythmically to become something other than an outdated be-bop tune. In other words, it takes on a shape of its own.
"Moose the Mooche" pushes the boundaries even further into something funky and still recognizable to the ear. The tune is played deliberately slow until the tension is released at the bridge, then it launches again in a slightly modal configuration. The band is essential to its success. This track features two drummers, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, who keep the pulse and trade fills while maintaining its swing. That's hard to do unless the band is relaxed. My guess is Lovano wanted everyone to feel comfortable in the studio and not pent up.
The album closes with "Yardbird Suite" arranged to start as a subtle ballad with washes of percussion surrounding Lovano's marvellous tenor sax sound. The band picks up the tempo slightly and grooves on to what sounds to me like a 6/8 time signature. The rhythm changes again during Esperanza Spalding's bass solo returning during Weidman's turn at the piano. Then, instead of winding out big, the group slows down to close out the tune.
Sometimes your greatest influence, artistically speaking, is your worst enemy daring you to break out of your shell. The Us Five is a jazz band with a leader interested in expanding the music while being honest with its origins. That alone makes Bird Songs one of the best albums of the year.
-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.