Some jazz artists enter a period in their careers where they've said all they have to say yet carry on, eking out a living, resting on laurels and simply playing out the string. Not saxophonist Joe Lovano. Folk Art is his 22nd recording for Blue Note alone, a run that has been marked by artistic consistency and tasteful excellence. This collection, however, is arguably the freshest and richest inside/out session he's delivered in his admirable career, certainly since Trio Fascination (with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones) over a decade ago.
One way (relatively) elder statesmen keep things interesting is by hiring young, searching musicians to help plot the course taken within new compositions; Lovano has rounded out Us Five with newcomers Esperanza Spalding on bass and both Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela on drums and exotic ethnic percussion. Only pianist James Weidman (Cassandra Wilson and Steve Coleman) can be considered Lovano's contemporary. Together the group lends flexible, unpredictable support to a rambunctious Lovano who, in addition to his trusty tenor, prominently features straight alto, tarogato (a Hungarian half clarinet/half soprano sax), alto clarinet and aulochrome (a double soprano sax with keyboard pads down the middle). He also bangs a gong here and there.
The title track is the album's centerpiece, a composition that comes at you in sections while retaining the integrity of the whole. Lovano states the theme on the straight alto, generating an urgently gripping human tone as the matchups shift from the full quintet to the two drummers and back to the quintet. When Lovano changes to tenor the piece swings its way to an open-ended conclusion. Surrounding this masterful performance are a pair of wonderful ballads, some African folk forms and "Ettenro" ("Ornette") that present a band right at home expressing themselves with dynamism, interweaving their individual voices in completely attuned harmony and marking time like buoys bobbing in the sea.
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.