Joe Lovano: a Far Out Fugue Page 2

Not surprisingly, the "Barbados" on Bird Songs again perfectly captures the loose, Latin-tinged vibe that makes it one of the most underrated gems in Parker's catalog of original tunes. Lovano and Us Five currently end their live sets with a joyous, energetic, pull-out-all-the-stops version of "Barbados" that gets Spalding bouncing and leaves Lovano breathless.

Rather than a straight tribute to Parker, Bird Songs (see sidebar for full review) is a variation on the old chestnut "What would Jimi Hendrix have become musically had he lived?" In this case the pondering focuses on Bird, who died in 1955 at age 34. Wisely, there are few attempts to duplicate Parker's trademark speed in his solos, or the otherworldly flow of ideas that, literally, no one before or since has ever been able to approach.

"I wasn't trapped into trying to play Charlie Parker's songs the way he played them. There have been plenty of cats on the scene, especially at the time [when Bird was alive], that tried to play the way he was playing, just to prove themselves. 'Oh man, I can play that fast, I could do this, I could do that'—but none of them came up to Bird's level, because he was a genius in modern music as an improviser, had an amazing facility on horn, and could play any melody that came into his head and place it in within whatever tune he was playing. He got around his horn amazingly. His rhythm and syncopation and flow were fast for everyone who heard him, but for him it was just clear as a bell. He created a language."

While Lovano does occasionally—as in midway through the opener, "Passport"—jump into bursts of rapid-fire soloing, just to let the listener know that he's not unaware of the one thing everyone thinks of when the name Charlie Parker comes up, the general idea of Bird Songs seems to be this: Take a recognizable melodic phrase or motif from an original tune like "Donna Lee" or "Ko Ko," and use it as a unifying point around which new ideas and arrangements ebb and flow; ie, where the music might have gone had Bird's thinking continued to evolve and he'd recorded new versions of his classics.

"The way John Coltrane developed on 'Naima' through the years, all the different . . . if we had only heard the very first recording of 'Naima' and never heard those other variations of it, we would have never imagined how he would have played that. Miles, too. If we had only heard the first recording of 'Walkin'' and never heard all those other versions, with Wayne [Shorter] and Tony [Williams] and everybody, we would never have imagined how that tune would have developed. In Bird's case, we only hear the classic recording of most of these tunes. We never really heard him develop different ideas with the rhythm section. Whatever version we hear, we hear him exploring on his horn with his imagination. That fuels my ideas to try to play some of these beautiful compositions, harmonic structures, the sequence of notes, and try and feel them in my own way.

"I mean, I played 'Donna Lee' the way everybody's always played 'Donna Lee'—at a brisk tempo, trying to execute those ideas within the range of my instrument. [Though often credited to Parker, "Donna Lee," based on the changes in "(Back Home in) Indiana," was actually written by Miles Davis, and became his first recorded composition.] It teaches you about your instrument, no matter what horn you're on. But then one day, when I started to really know those intervals, melodies, and harmonies, I began to play it at a slow pace and just feel it. All of a sudden it felt like a Coleman Hawkins solo. And now we explore it at a certain tempo, with one drummer playing mallets like timpani and the other drummer switching from sticks to brushes. The way the punctuation is now and the harmony, and the way the bass can improvise through the chords and not just play a walk, all of a sudden it's become this . . . dance."

Although primarily a tenor player, Lovano has been branching out in recent years, playing an ever more exotic array of horns. In "Birdyard"—which, along with three fragments of Parker-penned blues that he arranged into a number called "Blues Collage," is one of Lovano's two original contributions to the record—he plays the Aulochrome, a double soprano sax. The tune turns the first phrase of Bird's "Yardbird Suite" into what Lovano calls "a whirling dervish." Playing through five different keys, he improvises freely throughout the tune's melodic and harmonic structures. In rehearsing "Blues Collage," in which Lovano plays Bird's instrument of choice, the alto saxophone, he heard a strange echo.

"After we rehearsed it once, it was like this . . . far out fugue that was exactly the way the Modern Jazz Quartet played, and was kind of the basis of their approach and everything they played, in a way. The way John Lewis constructed things, the way Bags [Milt Jackson] played his parts . . . I mean, they played together like a fugue, and I think it was inspired by some of Charlie Parker's melodies, the way they crossed harmonies."

Perhaps the most fraught venture into Bird lore on Bird Songs is "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)," written in 1941 by Jimmy Davis, Roger "Ram" Ramirez, and James Sherman. The tune is also closely associated with Billie Holiday, and was made infamous in Parker's discography thanks to a July 1946 version that Bird recorded while in an altered state. Although he rerecorded the tune in a stellar version in the early 1950s, it's the earlier, more reckless version (which Bird hated) that many, including Charles Mingus, considered to be one of Bird's true masterpieces. Lovano agrees. Again, though, the instrument he uses on this Parker standard opens up enough distance between Bird's original and the one recorded by Us Five on Bird Songs to breathe and resonate in new ways.

"Recently, I got a horn that was made for me. It's a G mezzo-soprano. It's in the key of G, and it's between the soprano and the alto in tone color. It's like the bottom of the soprano and the top of the alto. So it's like what the alto flute is, between the flute and a bass flute. Or an English horn, between an oboe and bassoon. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to record on that, and 'Lover Man' came to mind. That was a tune that was real controversial for Charlie Parker, and a tune I thought he played so poetic on."

Ultimately, Bird Songs may be an artistic success because of Lovano's deep connection to Parker and his music, a lifelone obsession ignited by his father, Tony Lovano, who passed away in 1987 at the age of 61. "My dad heard Bird play live, and had a great collection of Charlie Parker's records that I grew up with and never had to buy. He treasured the moments of hearing Bird in the late '40s and early '50s when he came through Cleveland, and spoke about it a lot. He would have really dug seeing and hearing that I've developed to a point where I can actually record these things and play them in my own way.

"I couldn't put [these songs] where Bird would have. I don't know what he would have done. For me, it's also about playing some of these tunes I grew up learning. Most of these tunes taught me how to play my horn. Every chorus we play [on Bird Songs] is a totally different chorus than the last, and that's how I like to play music. You're creating an inner music from the music."