Joe Lovano Us Five. Cross Culture.
Blue Note, 2013. Joe Lovano: http://www.joelovano.com/
Joe Lovano is more than one person, or at least, more than one musical personality. Born and raised in Cleveland, jazz-fed by his dad, Tony “Big T” Lovano, he has had a sparkling career in the post-bop world, with occasional forays into swing and hard bop, tenor sax in hand. More recently, he has been associated with the collective Us Five. It’s here that Lovano gets to experiment, to go beyond his usual work into unnamed areas. I’ve enjoyed many of his albums, especially Tenor Legacy, Rush Hour, 52nd Street Themes, and Joyous Encounter. This is his third album with Us Five, and I must say that his previous forays with them have been puzzling to me, so let’s see where this goes.
“Blessings in May” begins the proceedings, and it’s a fine tune, with Lovano shooting streams notes like cascades of water. Weidman breaks in for a piano solo, which maintains the momentum but is more traditional in approach. The presence of two drummers is obvious from the start. There’s percussion everywhere, but it’s muted, constantly filling the background. This theme continues through most of the tracks, and makes for a fascinating percussion presence. “Myths and Legends” slows the pace, but goes further out musically, and Lovano goes a bit too far in the direction of free jazz for my taste. On “Cross Culture,” we really start to hear Loueke’s contribution on guitar, which provides a countermelody to Lovano’s playing. Their interplay is delightful, with Weidman joining in here and there. Short, choppy phrases seem to be the feature of “In a Spin,” with Weidman holding the center together with his piano while others fly in all directions and the drummers churn underneath.
All the compositions here are originals, except for the Ellington/Strayhorn ballad, “Star Crossed Lovers.” This is gorgeously played, slow, sparse, and sweet, featuring Lovano, but it’s easy to hear the contributions of the other musicians, especially Weidman’s piano, Spalding’s bass, and the drummers. Spalding gets a solo in the middle, and she plays beautifully. All the other tunes are quite different in tone than this mid-CD break.
“Journey Within” recalls some of the themes of “In a Spin,” but takes a slower approach. Loueke gets solo time on guitar here and more work in general, a break from Lovano’s dominant short and somewhat wild bursts. Percussion takes center stage with “Drum Chant,” a fun romp with the drummers, and Loueke uses his gutar to full effect, sometimes as lead, other times as part of the rhythm section, as there doesn’t seem to be a bass player here. Both Spalding and Slavov get to play on “Golden Horn,” the only place where they overlap, although Loueke goes away. Given the title, one would have expected more sax and less rhythm, but it sounds good. The group goes back to a more traditional style of playing on “Royal Roost,” an uptempo tune with lots of bop, a nice solo by Slavov, and some fine piano work by Weidman. This was my favorite piece on the album. “Modern Man” reminds me of “Salt Peanuts,” a tune I never felt warmly about; its jittery time changes don’t appeal to me, but might to others. “PM” is the closer and the longest tune on the album, another experiment in shreds and patches that doesn’t do much for me.
I was glad to spend time with this latest Us Five venture. Close listening helped me to understand a bit more where Joe Lovano is going, and what I like and don’t like about that direction. Much of the album I found enjoyable, but stuck as I am in the past of jazz, the more experimental pieces tended to leave me wondering. The band is top-notch, and you may discover that the things you like the most are those that I liked least. The album is a top contender in the jazz polls, and for that reason alone is worth a try.
Personnel: Joe Lovano (tenor sax, G mezzo soprano sax, autochrome, taragato, oborom drum, gongs, shakers, paddle drums), James Weidman (piano), Peter Slavov (bass), Esperanza Spalding (bass), Otis Brown III (drums), Francisco Mela (drums, whistle, balafon), guest, Lionel Loueke (electric guitar).
Tracks: Blessings in May, Myths and Legends, Cross Culture, In a Spin, Star Crossed Lovers, Journey Within, Drum Chant, Golden Horn, Royal Roost, Modern Man, PM.
The Grand Wazoo