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REVIEW Joe Lovano Shaking the Room—and the Snow

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Monday January 17, 2011

From the Wall Street Journal

Joe Lovano and Us Five
By Will Friedwald

After 30 albums as a leader and at least 25 years in the spotlight, it’s clear that Joe Lovano is more than a dominant figure in jazz. In fact, he’s jazz’s answer to George Clooney or Jeff Bridges, a vibrant player who can be counted on to deliver an award-worthy performance every time out. This week the saxophonist launched his new album, “Bird Songs,” on which he and his quintet Us Five (featuring star bassist Esmeralda Spalding) address the music of Charlie Parker in a decidedly contemporary context, with a week at the Vanguard. The major difference between Mr. Lovano and his Hollywood equivalents is that he never disappoints, and has yet to get stuck in something like “Men Who Stare at Tron.”

One of the advantages of having a personality as strong and secure as Mr. Lovano’s is that you’re not afraid to immerse yourself in the idiom of some of the more Olympian figures in the musical pantheon. He’s participated in tributes to, among others, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra, Lee Morgan and even Enrico Caruso. Most of these projects, especially the new “Bird Songs,” illustrate the difference between re-creation and interpretation. Mr. Lovano’s approach, as he says in the album’s notes, is to imagine how Parker might have continued to develop his music had he been able to keep going as long as, say, his collaborator Dizzy Gillespie.

Both the album and the late set begin with one of the rarer Parker tunes, “Passport.” Ostensibly this is one of the many early bebop variations on “I Got Rhythm,” but, much the way Parker himself started with George Gershwin’s basic foundation and built on it, Mr. Lovano keeps right on adding to Parker’s construction and moving the piece generationally forward. At the Vanguard, earlier this week, he played long sections emphasizing the line as distinct from the chords, teasing out the melody and toying with it, like Ornette Coleman—but he also added a Sonny Rollins calypso beat, making the tune a passport to somewhere exotic. Then, too, there were passages when he ran the changes and projected an intense barrage of notes in the classic Parker style.

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