Joe Lovano’s Folk Art
, his 22nd album on the Blue Note label, is an odd, sometimes jarring record—it took a few hearings before I found my bearings—but once the fragments snap into place, it’s a rousing pleaser, bursting with indigo moods, heart-skipped romance, and free-flow funk riffs. Lovano plays all kinds of reeds—tenor sax, straight alto sax, clarinet, and, on one song, the aulochrome, a Hungarian-built horn that’s a double soprano sax (attached to one reed), each side tuned to a different key, so that you blow melody and harmony simultaneously. He plays with a somewhat hardened tone, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, but with a more soulful sensibility, stemming from his Midwestern roots (his father was a tenor blues saxophonist in Cleveland), though over the past couple decades, he’s played with, and gleaned ideas from, a wide variety of masters, including Hank Jones, Gunther Schuller, and Mel Lewis, to name a few.
His new band—called Us Five—consists of James Weidman, a spry young pianist who seems equally at home with lump-throat ballads and knotty mazes; Esperanza Spalding, a defter, grittier bassist here than on her own (more pop-ish) album; and Otis Brown and Francisco Mela on drums and percussion. The music, all of it composed by Lovano, has a deceptively casual feel—loose and tight, meandering and structured. Lots of small jazz bands aim for this brass-ring sensation; Us Five achieves it, and it’s head-swimming, if you give it your attention and dive in. The album was recorded, after a week of Village Vanguard gigs, at Sear Sound, the purist Manhattan studio, by James Farber, one of the top three or four jazz engineers, and, except for a bit of compression on the percussion, it sounds predictably terrific—vibrant, present, well-balanced, true to tone.