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Joe Lovano: Joe Lovano - Bird Songs

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Joe Lovano's Us Five debut, Folk Art (Blue Note, 2009), was a triumphantly energetic outing, filled with the sound of two drummers and running through a program of Lovano's originals. It was a highly personal and emphatic debut, and a great one too, but Bird Songs is important in completing the portrait of this ensemble.

Bird Songs confirms what was previously just a suspicion—that this ensemble has a wide range of expression that can be applied to many different settings. The live shows that followed Folk Art sometimes sounded exactly like the record, at least in mood and approach, but the group is far from stale. Bird Songs is a Charlie Parker-ish album, but not a tribute, as Lovano has pointed out. It would be hard to label this disc a tribute to anything but Us Five, which demonstrates a remarkable ability to apply its unique sound to Parker standbys and originals alike.

Lovano chose magnificent drummers for this group, and both Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela create an energetic backdrop for James Weidman's sprightly piano and Spalding's beautiful bass lines on "Barbados." Lovano fills the space beautifully, while Weidman keeps the chords coming over a constant drum groove, the space is provided by bassist Esperanza Spalding, who leaves plenty of room in her lines, sometimes hinting at a swing feel, other times digging deep into the tune's Latin tinge.

Spalding—a 2010 Grammy Award-winner—has become even more of a talking point today than she was prior to her winning the award for Best New Artist, and the buzz can sometimes overpower the music. But she has always had a rich, versatile style on her instrument, and the fact that she can use her obvious talent on the bass in such a different setting is a testament to musical sensibilities that some are busy denouncing when, they should be listening to her playing on Bird Songs—especially her solo on "Lover Man."

The ever-creative Weidman is at his best here, and the two drummers meet—possibly even raise—the standard they set on Folk Art. Some may quail in front of the double-kit concept, but these guys are so completely in tune on this record, with "Moose The Mooche" a great example, that it sounds like one dude with four arms, not two separate drummers: fills interlock seamlessly; cymbals from one kit are paired with toms from the other; and loud from Mela is met with quiet from Brown, or vice-versa.

There have been many Bird tributes, but few have worn its subject with such creativity. Like Sonny Rollins' Bird-themed Plays For Bird, Bird Songs truly isn't a tribute album. Instead, it's an album about someone else, made with all the invention and creativity that Parker brought to his own music. It's an album to the spirit of, not in the spirit of, and sets a high bar for 2011, from one of the strongest ensembles in jazz today.

Track Listing: Passport; Donna Lee.; Barbados; Moose the Mooche; Loverman; Birdyard; Ko Ko; Blues Collage (Carvin' the Bird-Bird Feathers-Bloomdido); Dexterity; Dewey Square; Yardbird Suite.

Personnel: Joe Lovano: saxophones; James Weidman: piano; Esperanza Spalding: bass; Otis Brown III: drums; Francisco Mela: drums.

Title: Bird Songs | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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