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NPR First Listen: Joe Lovano Us Five, 'Bird Songs'

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Monday January 03, 2011

From NPR

First Listen: Joe Lovano Us Five, ‘Bird Songs’
By Patrick Jarenwattananon

It’s been more than 55 years since Charlie Parker last took up an alto saxophone, and just about every jazz musician still grapples with his legacy. Here’s a man who was a central architect behind the revolution of bebop, the closest thing jazz has to a lingua franca today. What he improvised was often searingly fast but seemingly note-perfect; staggeringly intricate, yet filled with tenderness and beauty. In his prime, every recording he left behind was somewhere between a marvel and a definitive statement from the standpoint of playing, composing or some ineffable aesthetic something else.

The tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano is 58 now — not quite old enough to have meaningfully met Charlie Parker, but certainly old enough to have become one of the jazz world’s most celebrated musicians. Like his peers (and antecedents, and successors), Lovano grew up in jazz working out in Bird’s language. Hence Bird Songs, his new album of highly stylized takes on the Charlie Parker songbook.

More numbers: This is Lovano’s 22rd album for Blue Note Records alone, and the second with his band Us Five. It’s an unconventional outfit; Lovano is clearly at the center with his tenor sax (or occasionally soprano sax, or straight alto, or aulochrome), but he surrounds himself with two astounding drummers in Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, plus the under-heralded James Weidmann on piano and the well-heralded phenom Esperanza Spalding on upright bass. (Spalding is cast in a supporting role, eschewing the singing that’s won her fame for her own projects.) The first Us Five record, Folk Art, featured only Lovano originals, purposely unsettled and adrift in percussion. The same general approach holds here with Bird’s tunes; Lovano’s arrangements feel a bit like reinventing the wheel by making it less round.

Listen to the record here