Joe Lovano releases the first great jazz album of 2013



The saxophonist Joe Lovano has regularly spoken of his malleable quintet Us Five as a band that's capable of doing and playing anything, and on the group's brand-new Cross Culture (Blue Note), its third album, that's never seemed more apparent. The group tackles the Ellington/Strayhorn classic "Star Crossed Lovers," but the other ten pieces are all Lovano originals—some of which he's recorded previously in other contexts—yet they all feel more like superflexible settings or structures than rigid compositions, allowing the players great internal latitude.

The band's two drummers—Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela—have never sounded more comfortable, crafting huge polyrhythmic gullies that Lovano and pianist James Weidman are able to pour their improvisation into, floating across, splashing within, and sinking into the grooves. It's remarkable how different they sound together yet how expertly they fit together, never stumbling or getting in one another's path. Few modern saxophonists have such a mercurial tone as Lovano, as his harmonic rigor allows him to shade and smear every note with unexpected color or breathy textures, and this shape-shifting band gives it greater leeway than ever.

Original bassist Esperanza Spalding has been increasingly occupied with her own solo career, and she appears on just four pieces, with Peter Slavov, who's more or less become the regular bassist, handling the rest. The quirky Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke quietly joins in on six tracks, sounding better than I've ever heard him, surrendering any kind of ego to function as a deeply integrated part of the ensemble. His striated tone generally limns the jagged unison lines of Lovano and Weidman, providing a kind of ominous shadow or metallic tang to the slaloming, stop-start movement, particularly on "In a Spin."

A piece such as "Journey Within," inspired by the music of longtime collaborator Paul Motian (the album closer "PM" is an even more explicit tribute), represents another extreme, with Loueke following the reedist through a sparse, dry landscape of dark post-bop squiggles while the drummers build an elaborate jungle gym of splattery, splashy accents—and with both Slavov and Weidman sitting this one out, Lovano is at his most harmonically adventurous. He gives the drummers even more on "Drum Chant," a clattery barrage iced by stuttery six-string harmonics by Loueke—Lovano himself adds some percussion on log drum and unleashes a wonderfully astringent solo on taragato, the clarinetlike Hungarian single reed often blown by Peter Brötzmann. Even on something more straight-ahead and swinging, like "Royal Roost" or the album opener "Blessings in May," which you can hear below, the twin drummers add an electric buoyancy that sparks the sleek lines of Weidman and the splendid blowing of the leader. It's the first great jazz album of 2013.

Today's playlist:

Ocote Soul Sounds and Adrian Quesada, Coconut Rock (ESL)
Louis Sclavis, Lost on the Way (ECM)
Frankie Rose, Interstellar (Slumberland)
Rob Mazurek, Amorphic Winged (Walking Road)
Jackie McLean, Nature Boy (Blue Note)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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