Joe Lovano seems to have developed a taste for launching brilliant New Year salvos into the jazz firmament. As he did with 2011’s Bird Songs (Blue Note), the saxophonist released this year’s recording by his Us Five group, Cross Culture (Blue Note, 2013), in the lifting fog of January’s opening hangover. And, like its predecessor, it sends a blaring message to the rest of the jazz world: “Yeah, the year’s just getting started, but it may already have its greatest record. Thanks for playing.”
Lovano probably isn’t trying to make such a boast through his release schedule (nor, at this point in his lauded career, does he likely feel the need to do so, at any time of year). Nevertheless, both releases have gotten their respective years off to a bang, one that, in Bird Songs’ case proved hard to match. And, if anything, Cross Culture sets the bar even higher. It’s a forceful, exploratory record, that finds Lovano wielding tenor sax, G mezzo soprano sax, the double-throated aulochrome, and taragato (often switching up horns in the middle of a piece) to probe and wrestle the musical landscape. There’s a deep, questioning intelligence in everything the reedman plays here. Even boisterous numbers like “Blessings In May,” “In a Spin” or “Royal Roost” speak of a mind elated or agitated in physical exertion, they don’t just scream with brute, dumb force. Joe’s reading of the Ellington/Strayhorn nugget “Star Crossed Lovers” beautifully, naturally runs the full amorous cycle from breathy anticipation, through cocky, lighthearted swagger, to heightened exuberance and the low sighs of exhaustion.
Us Five has, in fact, been about crossing cultures since its formation in 2009 and the release of Folk Art (Blue Note)—blending cultures from both the music world and the world at large. The group’s musicians hail from various generations, ethnic backgrounds and “schools” of jazz, and they come together as an inquisitive, joyful, penetrating, rolling temblor. But for this date, Lovano extends the cultural convergence, inviting African guitarist Lionel Loueke to sit in on six of the numbers. For the most part, Loueke’s guitar employs a highly modern, Western accent as it trades with Lovano’s saxes. But on “Drum Chant” Loueke’s strings seemingly become skins for a percussive conversation with drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela.
Indeed, it’s this dual-drummer format that gives Us Five a good deal of its distinctive character. Brown and Mela weave a multidimensional percussive backdrop for the others to inhabit and explore. Lovano extends that model as well here, bringing together bassists Peter Stavov and Esperanza Spalding for a duet on “Golden Horn.” Stavov, a new addition to the group, plays on five additional tracks, while much-in-demand Spalding, the group’s original bassist, handles just three others. Pianist James Weidman rounds out the group, laying down pointed support, jumping, classically tinged solos, and a fine torch-song open to “Lovers.”
It’s January. It’s bite-ass cold in Cleveland. But native son Joe Lovano and his Us Five combo have given us sweet respite from the frigid temps, lighting the way for (hopefully) good things to come in jazz. Next week alone sees the release of anticipated recordings by saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Chris Potter. (Potter, incidentally, will be headlining the Lakeland Jazz Festival next month—a performance that’s likely to go down as the highlight from the 2013 Northeast Ohio jazz scene). Wayne Shorter, whose performances with his current quartet have widely been regarded as among the best in jazz over the last several years, releases a live album the following Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Ah, yes, 2013 is shaping up to be a lucky year indeed for jazz heads.
“Yo, Yeo, Yough”
In other release news, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the experimental group led by bassist Moppa Elliott and featuring his fellow Oberlin grad, trumpeter Peter Evans, released their fifth album, Slippery Rock (Hot Cup Records) this past Tuesday. I haven’t got my grubby hands on it yet, but here’s a typically bizarre video put out in support of the album: