Sunday, March 13, 2011

To the Next Level: Joe Lovano & Us Five’s Bird Songs

Be-bop music occasionally sounds tight and tense. In some cases, of course, it's supposed to. Be-bop jazz reflected the post-war times in which it developed. Then, it was new, challenging and difficult for audiences to appreciate on a wider scale, probably because you couldn't dance to it. Now, some 50 plus years since the death of Charlie Parker, Joe Lovano & Us Five, one of the great ambassadors of be-bop, has channeled Bird and taken him to the next level on Bird Songs (Blue Note, 2011). It's exciting music arranged in such a fresh way that it gives us a whole fresh perspective on the form. For Joe Lovano, Bird Songs captures the past with a lighter, intellectual touch. Everyone in the band is listening and following while simultaneously moving forward. They create a dynamic sound that has an inner-strength easily accessible to the listener.

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is a perfect example of keeping the basis of the tune but mixing it up rhythmically to become something other than an outdated be-bop tune.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.

Charlie Parker
“Ko Ko” is strictly a trio between Lovano, Brown and Mela. It works beautifully because Lovano marks the music by repeating the line as the drummers play off each other while not getting in each other's way. This track could be considered too academic to some ears, but not to mine because the humour comes through as well. Often, as is the case with the tune "Dexterity," the band will improvise on the chord changes without playing the head (or main melody). This works in an unpretentious way offering a surprise ending if you will. This track truly shows off the band's ability to exchange and interchange ideas with a seamlessness only a band this experienced could pull off.
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.

Joe Lovano
This is music with a true sense of character. It shuns the typical fast tempos of be-bop into something new and exciting almost like a work in progress. That sense of continuity bodes well for the Us Five. Ironically, Lovano didn't want to record music by Charlie Parker, even though he listened to it growing up and studied it with the help of his father's massive record collection.

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.

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