Joe Lovano updates “Bird” standards

Sam Lewin

As a result of the rich jazz tradition, contemporary jazz musicians routinely play 80-year-old standard jazz tunes on gigs and even on their latest albums. The jazz community is so adamant about honoring this tradition that many new jazz releases are actually remastered classic jazz albums. While it is often nice to listen to familiar melodies, 80-year-old songs get pretty boring, especially if they’re consistently played the same way.
With this in mind, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that Joe Lovano, one of contemporary jazz’s most acclaimed saxophone players, had released an album of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker tunes titled “Bird Songs.” Bebop legend Charlie Parker died in 1955, and while I love Parker’s saxophone playing and compositions, I thought I would have preferred to hear original Lovano compositions.
However, actually listening to “Bird Songs” quickly put my fears at ease – with “Bird Songs,” Lovano is even more concerned with foreshadowing the future of jazz than he is with honoring its past.
“Bird Songs” is Lovano’s second release with Us Five, a band which features a younger generation of jazz musicians: James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela on drums.
Each of these well-known musicians – some of whom are established bandleaders in their own right – interact with each other and with some of Parker’s most famed compositions. Under Lovano’s leadership, they reconstruct 1940s repertoire in arrangements that can be shocking.
The best example of this is Lovano’s arrangement of the standard “Donna Lee.” Parker’s recording of “Donna Lee” epitomizes up-tempo bebop, with its burning eight-note based melody and virtuosic solos. Lovano’s ballad-like version of “Donna Lee” is about a quarter of the tempo of Parker’s. Lovano doesn’t even play the tune’s melody, though he hints at it throughout.
Lovano repeats this technique on one of my favorite Parker tunes, “Moose the Mooche.” Parker’s version of the tune is fast and energetic, while Lovano’s is slow and dirty.
The only problem with Lovano’s slow arrangements of fast Parker tunes is that after awhile they begin to sound a bit repetitive and contrived – as though Lovano was fixated on sounding different.
Lovano and Us Five sound better when they play faster arrangements. One of my favorite tracks on the album is the brisk “Ko Ko.” Lovano plays “Ko Ko” in a trio setting with drummers Brown and Mela – two of the most explosive jazz drummers on the New York scene.
Listening to either drummer separately is an experience in itself, but together Brown and Mela are capable of unleashing sheer drum madness. However, it’s remarkable to hear how restrained they are both on “Ko Ko” and throughout “Bird Songs” as a whole; Brown and Mela complement the other musicians and rarely sound cluttered. But when they do erupt in fits of volume and intensity, they energize the entire band.
“Bird Songs” represents the best in jazz tribute albums: Lovano’s forward-looking approach to playing standard Charlie Parker repertoire is much more satisfying than simple hero worship.