Bird Songs Joe Lovano Us Five (Blue Note ) This Charlie Parker tribute is for nerds only

Yard Nerd Suite: Lovano’s Charlie Parker tribute is for nerds only.

Bird Songs is almost a lost cause. Saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker is so monumental a figure in jazz that separating his compositions from his legend just can’t be done. Still, any effort to dust off Parker’s oeuvre is a noble venture, and saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five ensemble (pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela) make an impressive pursuit of it with energetic, original, and refreshingly contemporary performances.

This last descriptor they achieve with a deconstructive approach fit for 21st century mash-up culture: “Birdyard” and “Ko-Ko” aren’t straight versions of Bird’s tunes but sets of repeated fragments of his melodies. On “Birdyard,” based on Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” the rhythm section endlessly recapitulates the original’s first four bars, ending mid-phrase and heading back to the start. Lovano improvises on top, but his odd-sounding work (on his self-designed “double soprano” instrument, the aulochrome) soon settles into one- and two-note vamps capped by the same broken phrase that the rhythm section loops.

Even more post-modern is “Blues Collage,” a quodlibet—multiple melodies played simultaneously—with Lovano performing “Carvin’ the Bird,” Weidman “Bloomdido,” and Spalding “Bird Feathers.” These are unique takes on Parker, and fun listens. But much of the fun comes from knowing the original compositions and appreciating their new context; for unacquainted ears, they probably just sound directionless.

If Parker’s looming stature is inevitable on Bird Songs, so is the rhythm section’s supremacy: Lovano may be the leader, but he didn’t hire two drummers hoping they’d fade into the background. “Barbados” has the Caribbean flavor of its namesake, with Mela and Brown playing a shuffle on different drums (one plays snares, the other rims and cymbals). The two get their own feature with the samba arrangement of “Dewey Square,” using their only solo to demonstrate close mutual listening. Spalding and Weidman are equally impressive, the former displaying a previously unheard blues touch (“Moose the Mooche”) and the latter using lyrical chops and rainbow cascades (“Dexterity”) to overcome a strangely synthesized-sounding piano tone.

As for Lovano, he remains charismatic and imaginative throughout, whether with the clear and velvety lines of “Passport” or the mean, slow-drag “Moose the Mooche” (where his tenor sax does its best Howlin’ Wolf impression). His only handicap is curatorial. How can the listener surmount Bird-as-icon when facing down “Ko-Ko,” one of history’s most revolutionary pieces of music? Worse yet is “Lover Man,” a standard associated with Bird because his 1946 recording is one of the most infamous fiascoes in jazzdom. (So drunk he couldn’t stand up without help, Parker played a tormented, barely coherent solo.) And so Bird Songs never manages de-institutionalize Bird; it’s an album for hardcore jazz geeks. In the end that doesn’t diminish the music’s success. Geeks need good albums, too. 

VIDEO: Joe Lovano - Bird Songs

Our Readers Say

Ok, Mister quodlibet,

... or should I say Mr. hardcore word geek,

I'll grant you that this is serious music for serious listeners, but did your review have to be so derogatory toward people who will enjoy this music? The world needs more serious music. Don't you think the musicians involved already understood they were significantly narrowing their audience by focusing on Bird and thus didn't need your help narrowing it further by turning away more listeners with your comments? "...for nerds only"!?

I find this recording to be a breath of fresh air in a phenomenally stale genre. I love jazz, but most new jazz is either stodgy and pedantic or patronizing to lazy listeners. This is neither. It's worth repeated listens for the interplay of the two drummers alone. This recording dares to take jazz somewhere both daring and musical. There is a lot to recommend this CD even if you're not a hardcore jazz geek although they... uh... I... will enjoy it very much, too.

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