Folk Art is saxophonist Joe Lovano's 22nd album as a leader for the esteemed Blue Note label, and surprisingly, his first of all original compositions. Folk Art is unusual not only in its choice of material, but in personnel as well. Pianist James Weidman is the only veteran, rising bass star Esperanza Spalding and percussionists Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela are new faces on the scene.
Inspired by the vigor of his young line-up, Lovano's open-ended approach recalls the expansive freedom of his more experimental Blue Note releases such as Universal Language (1992) and Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination, Vol. 2 (2001). Filled with untapped potential, Spalding, Brown and Mela are unafraid to venture into unfamiliar territory, forcing Weidman and Lovano to challenge their own concepts of expression.
An elder statesman with a mastery over both inside and outside approaches, Lovano draws upon an array of jazz traditions, dedicating a number of tunes to fellow artists. "Ettenro" is a bracing free meditation for the Harmolodic innovator whose spirit hovers over this set, while the funky and primal "Dibango" honors the famous Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, featuring Lovano's pungent double soprano, the aulochrome. "Song For Judi" unveils his romantic side in the guise of a lush tenor ballad dedicated to his wife, vocalist Judi Silvano.
Although Lovano and Weidman take the lion's share of the spotlight, the session gives ample attention to the rhythm section. Spalding, Brown and Mela execute their roles with aplomb, whether providing crisp boppish undercurrents to the rousing opener "Powerhouse," lithe conversational interplay to "Drum Song" or tender accents to the tranquil "Wild Beauty." Weidman's opulent excursions lend a stately air to the proceedings, while the leader's rough-hewn tenor flights veer from brisk linearity ("Powerhouse") and hazy impressionistic torrents ("Ettenro") to mellifluous refrains ("Wild Beauty").
While Lovano's new ensemble is impressive, his open-ended compositions are especially noteworthy. Generally eschewing head-solo-head formats, many of the tunes are episodic, knitting fragments of divergent melodies and variable rhythms together into narrative threads rather than recurrent themes. The sly title track is emblematic; after introducing an infectious serpentine vamp, the band abruptly recedes, spotlighting a scintillating percussion discussion between Brown and Mela. Their kaleidoscopic dialog intensifies and the quintet suddenly reconvenes with a bracing bop run featuring dazzling choruses from Weidman and Lovano. The careening tempo is quickly displaced by melodious abstraction and the opening theme then returns for a brief coda.
Other tunes follow similar strategies, incorporating saxophone-percussion duets ("Us Five"), spare rhythm section dialogs ("Page 4") and controlled collective improvisation that works towards a unified, harmonious goal ("Ettenro"). Balancing freedom with convention, Folk Art is one of Lovano's most adventurous and appealing sessions.
Track Listing: Powerhouse; Folk Art; Wild Beauty; Us Five; Song For Judi; Drum Song; Dibango; Page 4; Ettenro.
Personnel: Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone, straight alto saxophone, taragato, alto clarinet, aulochrome, gongs; James Weidman: piano; Esperanza Spalding: bass; Otis Brown III: drums, ankle bells, ascending opera gong, descending opera gong; Francisco Mela: drums, pandero, dumbek, Ethiopian drums, ankle bells.