Joe Lovano | Us Five, ‘Bird Songs’ Album Review

The music of Charley ‘Bird’ Parker is featured in Bird Songs,  an exquisitely played and superbly recorded album by Joe Lovano. The music and performance abilities of ‘Bird’ have been compared by many to the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was one of the greatest improvisers who ever lived. As was Charley Parker, who lived a hard and fast life but left us with a legacy of compositions and recordings that continue to inspire not only jazz saxophonists but instrumentalists and vocalists of every stripe, in countless genres of music.

The saxophone is the most personal of instruments, relying as it does on the breath and intonations of the player. Well, you might say, so does the clarinet. So does the trombone. However many listeners connect most strongly with both the range of the saxophone (tenor, alto, and baritone) as well as its readily identifiable sonic textures and let’s be frank here, the sexual qualities revealed by the musician in the course of playing. The saxophone is one of the most sophisticated and one of the most animalistic musical instruments ever devised. While musicians such as Brian Eno have stated that the guitar is pretty much a design failure, not so with the saxophone. Which brings us to Joe Lovano. A lifelong affair with the instrument and his devotion to the music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker resulted both in the formation of a new group known as Us Five and in the release of one of the best jazz albums of recent years.

Lovano leads the group with his tenor sax (or occasionally mezzo-soprano sax, or straight alto, or aulochrome), but is strongly supported by two astounding drummers in Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, plus the relatively unknown James Weidmann on piano and the oft-celebrated Esperanza Spalding on upright bass. (Spalding is cast in a supporting role, eschewing the singing that’s won her fame for her own projects.) Together the group reinvents the music of Bird with new and imaginative versions, some of them slowed down, some of them torn apart. All are new and profound meditations played by a master artist leading a superb ensemble.

Released in 2011, this was Lovano’s 22nd album for Blue Note Records. In many ways this record heralded a new beginning for him. At 58 years old, Lovano was a mature artist, old enough to imagine and create something new and wonderful from material that has been around for decades. Just as jazz musicians have been finding fertile ground in the music of Bach, here Lovano transforms Bird into a great composer for the 21st century.

Everybody in this band is a world class musician, capable of leading his own band.”

“To put yourself out on a limb, to do something different with integrity, that’s very special.”

“Putting this recording together I kept wondering how Bird would have developed within these tunes, not just as the incredible soloist that he was but as an arranger and band leader. From what we know about him it is clear that he was into the world of music beyond so called Jazz and Be Bop and I’m sure we would have all been surprised at every turn in his approach just as we were with Miles, Coltrane, Rollins and Coleman, four of his most distinguished and celebrated disciples. At the young age of 34 Charlie Parker passed and left us with all of these questions about what would be. This recording is my humble attempt to answer some of those questions in my own way.”

Highly recommended for jazz aficionados and neophytes alike.