Saxophonist Joe Lovano leads his band down bold trails

Veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano is comfortable playing many styles of music.
Veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano is comfortable playing many styles of music. (JIMMY KATZ / For The Inquirer)
Posted: January 21, 2013

Dressed from head to toe in shades of red, saxophonist Joe Lovano looked as colorful as the arrays of flowers that surrounded him in Longwood Gardens' conservatory Saturday night. Bounding across the ballroom stage, juggling several exotic horns in addition to his trademark tenor saxophone, Lovano led his Us Five quintet through a set no less bursting with radiant colors.

Us Five has been Lovano's primary vehicle since 2009, and the group has grown to embody the collective identity suggested by its name. It engaged in a vigorous five-way dialogue Saturday, roaming spontaneously through repertoire from its three Blue Note CDs (the latest, Cross Culture, was released Jan. 8). Lovano's compositions were suggestions rather than frameworks, leaping-off points for lengthy, adventurous explorations.

The band's most remarkable element is its two drummers, Otis Brown III and Cuban-born Francisco Mela. It's captivating to watch the two lock horns, taking off in a burst of tandem swing or volleying percussive eruptions. The driving force given to the ensemble by their constant tug-of-war lends an uncommon muscularity even to ballads like "Our Daily Bread" or Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Star Crossed Lovers."

Standing in the middle of this back-and-forth barrage was the animated bassist Esperanza Spalding, who repeatedly beamed at Lovano's playing. Famous for her 2011 Best New Artist Grammy win, Spalding keeps the bass closely attuned to her voice, and her solos on pieces like "Blessings in May" and Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" soared with a singing melodicism. But she also conjured a dark, booming thunder in her intro to "Drum Song," summoning a clatter of percussion from Brown and Mela.

Pianist James Weidman brought an unerring swing to the group, anchoring its sound with a hip tunefulness even in its most abstract moments. A veteran of more than three decades in the jazz world, Lovano veers effortlessly from bebop to avant-garde to an almost tribal exoticism, as when he conjured strange harmonics from the aulochrome, a double soprano saxophone, on "Modern Man." His young bandmates had no problem following wherever he chose to lead.

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