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Critic's pick: Joe Lovano and Us Five - 'Bird Songs'

critic's pick

Joe Lovano and Us Five

Bird Songs

The key to an enduring jazz legacy is relevance. In other words, such a legacy thrives when a musical inspiration from another era exists not as a museum piece and not as product fit for mere imitation, but rather as a means to create an artistic voice that finds vitality and validity in the present.

On his splendid new album Bird Songs, saxophonist, bandleader and overall jazz impresario Joe Lovano takes on the legacy of Charlie Parker. The Bird is an iconic jazz figure ripe for tribute treatment over the decades, and his tunes exist on the recording not as historical footnotes to be studiously analyzed and dissected. They are not given over to gratuitous reinvention, either. With the help of his daring double-drummer quintet, the Us Five, Lovano explores Parker's compositions more like soul music. The melodies, the construction and quite often the swing are regularly embraced. But the arrangements also evolve with graceful, glowing dynamics, much in the way Lovano's own compositions do. Add the multitude of reed colors that Lovano summons — on tenor, straight alto and something called the G mezzo soprano sax, along with the double-sax beast known as the aulochrome — and the Us Five's considerable melodic flexibility and you have a brave, fun new voice for a proven jazz legacy.

Passport opens Bird Songs, alternating between bright, boppish intimacy and gloriously contained swing. This is textbook Bird, raised several notches by Lovano's typically warm and playful sax tone. Need a five-minute vacation from the dead of winter? Passport is your visa out.

A similarly sunny lyricism is summoned with the Caribbean and Brazilian accents of Barbados and Dewey Square. The former possesses the kind of bounce that brings to mind the more summery music of fellow tenor titan Sonny Rollins, while the latter lets Us Five drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III set the stride with funky percussive chatter that represents one of Bird Songs' most joyous departures.

The closing 12-minute reading of Yardbird Suite beautifully opens the album up. It begins with luminous dialogue between Lovano and pianist James Weidman that sounds like a springtime variation on the spiritual music of John Coltrane before loosening further for a light-as-air bass solo from Esperalda Spalding that blends right back into another animated piano run by Weidman.

In the liner notes, Lovano proclaims his utmost respect for the great sax man Coleman Hawkins, whom he terms "the first Bird in flight." There are suggestions of his regal tone throughout Bird Songs as well. But mostly the album works in a way every great jazz recording should. It pays generous heed to the masters, shoulders up to their spirits and then confidently roars forward with its own royal voice.

Kick back and enjoy this first great album of 2011. It's a stunner.

WAlter Tunis, contributing music writer

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