One can only suppose, in listening to Cross Culture, the splendid third album by Joe Lovano's Us Five ensemble, that the saxophonist thinks little of familiarity.
As perhaps the most visible straight-ahead jazz artist on the historic Blue Note label — an alliance that dates back more than two decades — Lovano would be justified in thinking that those tuned into his music would have come to know his sound.
It is huge and commanding when voiced on tenor saxophone, more playful and meditative when delivered on soprano, and largely out of all predictable scopes when sent through the double-horn reed contraption known as the aulochrome.
Yet within the first few moments of Blessings in May, Cross Culture's delicious opening tune, Lovano gives us a crash course on why he is one this generation's craftiest jazz stylists. His tenor kicks in from the first beat, provided you can pinpoint where the beat is within Us Five's novel double-drum makeup. But the tenor tone is rich, animated and effortless, rising from a soulful, boppish bounce into a righteous squeal. Never heard Lovano's grand music before? Consider this tune a bright, life-size invitation.
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From there, Cross Culture delivers the goods on three levels. It covers nearly all of the other stylistic trademarks of Lovano's playing, embraces the tricky rhythmic maneuvers that the Us Five is known for and then expands on that sound even as it looks to the past. And in many cases, all three are explored simultaneously.
On Journey Within, Lovano peels back layers of the Us Five sound for a tune that boasts the same spacious ambience as the long-running bassless trio Lovano performed in with guitarist Bill Frisell and the late drummer Paul Motian. Here, Blue Note label mate Lionel Loueke co-opts Frisell's wiry, wispy guitar voice while the Us Five drum duo of Otis Brown and Francisco Mela pick up on Lovano's atmospheric groove. It's a testament to Motian's ingenuity that it takes two skilled drummers to stand in for him.
The bass rushes back into place on Golden Horn, which employs two bassists: Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding and Us Five newcomer Peter Slavov, who gloriously play off of the double drum team's percussion accents. After pianist James Weidman enters to anchor the groove, Lovano lightens the mood on the clarinet-like tarogato. Outside of this tune, Spalding and Slavov split bass duties throughout Cross Culture.
Royal Roost grounds the ensemble sound in light bop swing to recall Blue Note's glory years of the '50s and '60s. But the killer is PM, a direct and loving tribute to the great Motian, centered on masterful interplay between Lovano and the drummers.
There you have it, jazzers. We're only a week into the new year, and the bar for 2013 has already been set.