Sometime in the late 1990s, I lost touch with tenor sax giant Joe Lovano. It wasn’t that I found his playing uninspiring; indeed, I continued to love his work with Paul Motian and others. But his tenure with Blue Note seemed to have become weighed down by concept album after concept album, which, while perhaps dear to Lovano’s heart, weren’t grabbing me like From the Soul or Sounds of Joy once had. It sounded too easy, too polished. So it was with a skeptical ear that I spun Bird Songs, which – yes – could be regarded as a “concept album” in that Lovano and his band tackle Charlie Parker chestnuts.
Right off the bat, my concerns disappeared. First off, Lovano’s latest band Us Five is simply a killer. For the past couple years, they’ve developed this incredibly limber rhythmic concept (courtesy of bassist Esperanza Spalding, percussionists Otis Brown III and the great Francisco Mela, and superb pianist James Weidman). And what’s even better, the hot group doesn’t hamstring themselves by overburdening the music with concept or arrangement. Yes, these are iconic tunes and yes, there’s some quirky delight in listening to such a distinctive tenor player dip into these paradigmatic alto platforms. But while they change things up continually, there’s no stuffy reverence here, no showy reassessments, just a great group taking on a bunch of well-loved pieces in ways that suit the musicians’ style and affinities.
Lovano sounds fairly majestic throughout, sailing atop the tune, digging into it, twisting it from the inside out (his hot soprano turn on “Lover Man,” for example, is so exuberant that it even delivers this tune from the lugubrious). But his strengths aside, I kept focusing in on Brown and Mela. Sometimes they lock together, as on the joyous “Passport” which opens things up. Elsewhere, one will play brushes on snare while the other works rims and cymbals, as on the almost unrecognizably gauzy ballad take on the uber-iconic “Donna Lee” (“Yardbird Suite” also receives a laconic ballad treatment for much of its duration, even as the band cycles in and out of tempos, between pulse tracks and free play). Their work, as with the band as a whole, is never mere chatter atop a familiar theme; rather, the band often takes its cues from certain implications in the basic materials more than anything else – hear this especially on that little flutter and pause in “Moose the Mooche,” which becomes the linchpin of their swaggering reading. A similar sensibility turns “Koko” into a spacious, abstract tenor and drums exchange; “Dewey Square” into a jaunty Latin tune (with a dazzling Weidman solo); and a more oblique look at “Yardbird Suite” in “Birdyard,” where Weidman plays the familiar theme straight as the rest of the band staggers, clatters and grooves its way through a squawking Lovano statement.
The open, loose playing and the sheer exuberance of this band are completely winning from the start. Bird Songs is unpretentious and as good a “mainstream” jazz record as you’re likely to hear these days.