Album Reviews

Joe Lovano – Bird Songs

(Blue Note) UK release date: 21 March 2011

Although the radical spirit of bebop has never really left jazz, it’s interesting to observe how, amidst a pool of contemporary jazz musicians sometimes straining hard to avoid transparent historical references, others are restating the primacy of the great pioneers. The music of Charlie Parker, in particular, seems to be currently in vogue. Last year, pianist Django Bates made a characteristically mischievous but also highly respectful collection of Parker interpretations (Beloved Bird). This year, it is the turn of saxophonist Joe Lovano, one of the most eloquent and flexible improvisers in contemporary American music.

Part of the revolution of bebop was to perform the music at dazzling speeds. The musicians demonstrated that things not previously thought possible could be performed with confidence, accuracy and, most importantly, passion and spirit. Interestingly, Lovano’s interpretive approach is often to slow tempos down. Moose The Mooche becomes a deep slow swing, re-emphasising connections with the blues. Most refreshing of all is Donna Lee, so often played at breakneck pace in jam sessions, reimagined here as a brilliantly relaxed, almost casual quasi-ballad.

This does not make the playing any less creative of course. Lovano has stated that he approached the arranging and recording of this set not as a tribute album, but as a counterfactual exploration of how Parker might have developed had he lived beyond the bebop era. More concretely, perhaps, it is a recognition of how subsequent players were liberated not just through Parker’s ideas, but from the increased group interaction and expression that grew from the bepop movement.

Lovano himself remains a flighty, frequently exultant musician. Us Five, his latest ensemble, is something of a powerhouse, with energy levels raised considerably by the presence of two drummers (Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela) and the nimble, propulsive basslines of Esperanza Spalding. A percussive, rhythmic impetus is a characteristic feature here, particularly on the highly conversational take on Dewey Square. On Moose The Mooche, the ensemble are typically elastic and imaginative in their approach to rhythm and time.

This is a stronger, more confident album than its immediate predecessor (Folk Art). There it sounded as if Lovano’s new ensemble were finding their feet. Now, they are as sure footed and authoritative as any group he has played with, as well as the first to be credited as a regular working band. The ideas are lofty, but the execution is authoritative. The collective ethos is brilliantly established on Blues Collage, a deceptively brief medley of three of Parker’s blues tunes in which Lovano, pianist James Weldman and Spalding all take on leading melodic roles. Perhaps best of all are the free, atmospheric KoKo and an expanded take on Yardbird Suite, which veers between romantic ballad and exuberant, assertive double time. This looks like a new, exciting phase in Lovano’s impressive career.

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Joe Lovano – Bird Songs