Joe Lovano

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With Cross Culture, his 23rd Blue Note recording and the third consecutive release by the critically acclaimed quintet, Us Five, Joe Lovano offers a summational document.

Augmenting his core group (pianist James Weidman, bassists Esperanza Spalding or Peter Slavov, and drummers Otis Brown and Francisco Mela) with guitarist—and fellow Blue Note artist—*Lionel Loueke*, Lovano consolidates ideas explored on Us Five’s 2009 debut, Folk Art, a diverse suite of his originals, and its follow-up, Bird Song*s, a well-wrought deconstruction of *Charlie Parker*’s lexicon. Both albums made an impact—*Folk Art earned best-of-class honors from both DownBeat and the Jazz Journalists Association, which also honored Bird Songs as 2011’s “Recording of the Year.”

On Cross Culture, with four years of regular touring and immersive interaction behind them, the band plays the 11-piece program (ten of them Lovano originals) with admirable clarity and focused intention. “The idea behind Folk Art was to put together music that’s beyond category, influenced by a combination of natural feelings of folk music around the world. Over time, I’ve developed my ideas and the repertoire. Each piece here has its own flavor and life in its rhythm and feel. We’re playing with a real sense of each other and a creative flow, and it’s so much fun to let the music unfold with a natural rhythm and energy that to me precedes all the styles in jazz.”

Indeed, Cross Culture is Lovano’s most fully realized representation of a career-long quest to explore the notion of universal musical language. “Since I started to tour in the late ‘70s, I’ve collected instruments from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe, and North and South America,” says Lovano, who, in addition to his instantly recognizable tenor saxophone, improvises on G-mezzo soprano, tarogato, and aulochrome, and plays an array of percussion—bells and shakers, an Israeli paddle drum, and a Nigerian slit drum called an oborom. “I’ve spent a lifetime feeling the passion of experiencing the spirits in the sounds of the collective ancestors in these instruments, creating music but feeling like the earth. It’s coming through in my compositions and in the way we play together.”

Loueke, who himself combines exhaustive knowledge of harmony and folk forms, contributes seamlessly and egolessly to six pieces. “Lionel doesn’t just play the guitar,” Lovano says. “He freely integrates himself with the rhythm section and with me in the front line, and shares the space in a personal way.”

The album-opening “Blessings In May” is an ebullient tune “about springtime and rebirth and new life,” on which Spalding plays bass. The solos—Lovano on tenor, then Weidman, then Lovano on G-mezzo—proceed over the unique, one-voice surge that Mela (left channel) and Brown (right channel) have conjured over their long association.

“They switch roles all the time,” says Lovano, a devotee of the two-drumset sound since the mid ‘70s. “Sometimes one plays more as a melodic percussionist in the front line with me, while the other plays the function of the drummer. We’re developing a vocabulary within the music’s language, and we communicate organically.”

Lovano wrote “Myths and Legends” on commission for the String Trio of New York in 1997; he restructured it for this occasion as a tenor saxophone feature. “The initial premise has been inside me for a while,” he says. “Unknown influences. Mysterious channeling of spirits, Legends in jazz, and in mankind, throughout history.”

A thematic section of the original “Myths and Legends” also seeds the title track “Cross Culture,” premised on similar one-world imperatives. Over a prancing beat that is completely unique to Us Five, Lovano declaims on tenor, Loueke and Weidman punctuate, Loueke bobs-and-weaves, initiating a conversation with Lovano on G-mezzo soprano. Lovano also produces rhythm timbre with log drums, shakers, and gongs.

The drums state a thunderous march creating a trance-like whirling dervish on “In A Spin,” propelling Loueke into a unison with Lovano’s tenor. After Weidman’s free-flowing improvisation, Loueke launches another unison with Lovano on aulochrome (a double soprano saxophone with one keyboard down the center), then uncorks a skronky solo, followed by a bellowing tenor declamation that limns the outer partials.

Lovano is magisterial on Billy Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” channeling the spirits of Ben Webster and John Coltrane while conveying the narrative of Othello and Desdemona. Note the way Mela and Brown orchestrate with mallets and brushes at this restrained tempo, and Spalding’s melodic, full-toned solo interlude.

Echoes of the Paul Motian Trio with Lovano and Bill Frisell suffuse the melody of “Journey Within,” a flowing ballad line that the ensemble—Lovano on G-mezzo, Loueke, and the parallel drumsets—shapes with nuance and soul. The collective interplay is intense, the solos brainy and heartfelt.

The same configuration—Lovano plays log drum and tarogato—addresses the appropriately titled “Drum Chant,” before the ensemble turns to “Golden Horn,” which Lovano first recorded in 1988 in a quartet led by bassist Henri Texier with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Aldo Romano, and subsequently in 2001 in guitarist James Emery’s group with bassist Drew Gress, and vocalist Judi Silvano. He retains the double-bass context, pairing off Spalding and Slavov to introduce the melody, complemented by the drumsets, Lovano’s gong-strikes, and Mela’s balafon. The tempo coalesces around Weidman’s solo, before Lovano takes a dancing turn on tarogato, exploiting its woody tone.

“Royal Roost” is a hard-swinging new tune on which Lovano, on tenor, revisits “the joyous feelings” of post-war bebop on 52nd Street, a subject he explored on several of his Blue Note recordings of the aughts, both with his nonet and his quartet with Hank Jones and Paul Motian.

Lovano introduced “Modern Man” on the 1990 Blue Note date, From the Soul, in duet with seminal drummer Edward Blackwell. It’s a kinetic drum feature (Spalding plays bass), on which the leader, playing aulochrome, elicits the “feeling of a full ensemble saxophone section.”

The album ends with an expansive performance of “PM,” inspired by master drummer-composer Paul Motian, his frequent collaborator from 1981 until his death two months before the recording. The brisk 7-note clusters at the top evoke Motian’s penchant for creating islands of structure that elicit open improvisation, an art at which Lovano and Loueke are masters. Like everything that has preceded it, the performance, in Lovano’s words, “combines the harmonic and rhythmic structures of modern jazz in a free-flowing way, with a tribal energy, tying together things about the world of music, beyond just categories of jazz.”

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* Blessings In May Joe Lovano
Barbados 6:20 Joe Lovano
Birdyard 1:48 Joe Lovano
Passport 5:27 Joe Lovano
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Watch what's on

* Sound Prints, Live at Vitoria Jazz Festival (201
Bird Songs EPK
Joe Lovano Village Rhythms Band
Joe Lovano with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra
Joe Master Class Video
Sound Prints EPK
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organic and basic, intense and casual… Mr. Lovano’s performance is a knockout
New York Times

After 30 albums as a leader and at least 25 years in the spotlight, it’s clear Joe Lovano is more than a dominant figure in jazz. He’s jazz’s answer to George Clooney or Jeff Bridges, a vibrant player who delivers an award-worthy performance every time out.
Wall Street Journal

Leave it to restless tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano to take the idea of a tribute record and turn it on its head with this collection dedicated to Charlie Parker… Lovano digs for new twists in Parker’s compositions like the flesh-and-blood creatures they are rather than replicating what’s already been heard… Though a showcase for history, Lovano and his band expertly show the many ways these classics can still throw sparks.
Los Angeles Times