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.