Joe Lovano & Us Five – Bird Songs – Blue Note/EMI 509999 05861 2 5, 1 hour ****:
(Joe Lovano – tenor, mezzo-soprano & straight alto sax, aulochrome; James Weidman – piano; Esperanza Spalding – bass; Otis Brown III – drums & percussion; Francisco Mela – drums & percussion)
As any jazz fan would recognize, this album is a tribute to Charlie Parker. But it’s not just the usual redoing of his adventurous and often complex songbook, but approaches Parker’s tunes – as the New York Times said – “as a springboard rather than an altar.” In his 22nd album for Blue Note, saxist Lovano and his Us Five ensemble give us their uniquely personal view of this most important figure of modern jazz. In fact, some of the tracks are radically different from the Parker originals. Lovano says he wasn’t trying to play like Charlie Parker at all, but to “try to open [the tunes] up and turn them inside out in a way to create my own melodic and rhythmic variations.”
First, we should consider the unusual instrumental makeup of this aggregation. While alto sax was Bird’s main instrument, Lovano’s is tenor and he preferred to play that on most of the eleven tracks here. He does play alto on “Blues Collage,” and G mezzo soprano on “Lover Man.” On “Birdyard” he turned to his unique double-soprano sax he calls the aulochrome. (When I put that in search I got a lot of stuff about autochrome, which was the first color photography system, starting in 1907. Fascinating but no help in researching Lovano’s instrument – which I’d love to see a photo of.) The other unusual instrumentation feature here is Lovano’s use of two drummer/percussionists. Working with Grammy-winning young bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist James Weidman, they constitute a very strong rhythm section to back up Lovano’s musings on the genius of Charlie Parker.
The idea of the album grew out a performance on the island of Barbados, for which Lovano scheduled his special arrangement of Parker’s “Barbados.” They tried to capture a Caribbean feel in that piece and it led to doing some of the tunes in the Parker songbook. Many of Parker’s tunes are done at breakneck tempi, but Lovano slowed “Moose the Mooche” down, let the rhythm section set up a sort of funk groove over which Lovano disassembles the melodic line and plays it his own way. “Ko Ko” is delivered by only Lovano and the two drummers, implying differing tempi at the same time, while the saxist improvises freely. “Dewey Square” – a Parker number I was unfamiliar with – has a Brazilian feel to it, Lovano wanting to capture some of the influences from world music which he has in his band. The disc closes out with its longest track – a 12-minute version of “Yardbird Suite” – whose melody Lovano says he heard as a hymn or a spiritual, and which he started to play unaccompanied.
Lovano points out that Bird was into the whole world of music, not just jazz and bebop, and suggests that had he lived longer than only 34 years we would have all been surprised at what he might have accomplished. Lovano’s album is his attempt to answer some of these questions about Bird’s genius.
TrackList: Passport, Donna Lee, Barbados, Moose the Mooche, Lover Man, Birdyard, Ko Ko, Blues Collage, Dexterity, Dewey Square, Yardbird Suite
— John Henry