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Joe Lovano Us Five: Kennett Square, PA, January 19, 2013

Troy Collins By

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Joe Lovano Us Five
Longwood Gardens
Kennett Square, PA
January 19, 2013

Renowned saxophonist Joe Lovano brought his esteemed Joe Lovano Us Five ensemble to Kennett Square's bucolic Longwood Gardens on a crisp January evening, touring in support of Cross Culture, his 23rd release for Blue Note Records. Performing in the Conservatory's intimate ballroom, the unconventional lineup entertained a sold-out audience in an elegant prewar setting that provided an ideal backdrop for Lovano's timeless artistry.

The capacity crowd was no doubt due in part to the presence of recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, Us Five's original bassist, whose newfound celebrity and current touring schedule necessitated Lovano's recruitment of Peter Slavov as a substitute bassist (consequently, Spaulding and Slavov take turns playing on Cross Culture). Although most of Us Five's members are younger than the leader, pianist James Weidman is his peer; their relationship dates back to the formation of the saxophonist's nonet in the 1990's.

The personnel's most notable detail however, is the inclusion of two drummers. While the idea of using multiple percussionists in a jazz context is not new, simultaneously employing two full trap set drummers is rare. It is to Lovano's credit that he chose Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, whose congenial rapport offers a fascinating study in contrasts. Despite their very different approaches, they perfectly complement each other, laying out to afford extra space as often as providing dramatic accents, even finishing each other's phrases on occasion.

Lovano opened the set unaccompanied on tenor with abstract, intervallic phrases that gradually congealed into the knotty theme to "Us Five," culled from the group's 2009 Blue Note debut, Folk Art. While alternating with the drummers it became immediately apparent that Lovano's statement in the liner notes to Cross Culture that "everyone is leading and following" is a truism, and nowhere is this more evident than in the quintet's live performances. Their studio albums are masterfully concise creations, yet in concert Lovano spontaneously conducts his sidemen, setting up trios, duos and solos that allow each member ample room to interpret the material in their own fashion.

The opener proved indicative of Lovano's expansive concepts, encompassing spirited statements from all, highlighted by Weidman's cascading linear runs and Spaulding's virtuosic fretwork—whose palpable enthusiasm was shared by her equally beaming partners. Taking his cue, Lovano switched to straight alto and concluded the labyrinthine composition with sprightly trades directed amongst Brown and Mela, his keen rhythmic articulation inspiring focused attentiveness from both drummers.

Stringing together a trio of originals from their newest release, the group launched into the jaunty swinger "Blessings In May," the lead tune, before seamlessly transitioning into "PM," the album's frenetic closer. Gradually, they collectively modulated into a hypnotic rendition of "Cross Culture," the haunting title track. Reveling in the song's bluesy ambience and languid tempo, Lovano demonstrated his sophisticated mastery of the tenor with a series of soulful refrains.

"Yardbird Suite," first heard on Bird Songs, the band's 2011 Charlie Parker-themed Blue Note release, materialized from an impressionistic haze, as the leader's breathy tenor elicitations incrementally intensified, underscored by Brown and Mela's nimble interchanges. The two drummers took turns accompanying Spaulding's quicksilver bass solo, revealing subtle differences in their techniques, even at low volume. Brown's controlled precision offered cool yin to Mela's fiery yang, whose brash cymbal crashes and hard-hitting attack provided dynamic contrast. Spaulding and Weidman's probing extrapolations were followed by Lovano's diaphanous tenor coda, which subtly evoked the graceful spirituality of John Coltrane.

The leader introduced the band members mid-set, before announcing Billy Strayhorn's opulent ballad "Star Cross Lovers," which featured Lovano's most heartfelt and lyrical playing of the date—an aesthetic extended by Weidman and Spaulding's plangent testimonials. Spaulding led the opening of the mesmerizing "Drum Song" accompanied by Brown and Mela's exotic pointillist accents, as a funky Afro-Latin variation on "Golden Horn" slowly emerged, before Brown and Mela engaged in a furious duel that peaked with the thunderous volume of a drum line march. Lovano quickly stated the angular melody of "Modern Man" on aulochrome, closing the triptych medley with zealous fervor.

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