In an article on Salon.com last week titled “Did the American songbook kill jazz?,” arts reporter Scott Timberg explores the genre’s reliance on standards -- and the idea that constant (and often mediocre) recycling of old familiars like “Autumn Leaves” and “Stardust” has perhaps been the poison slowly sapping the energy out of jazz and its audience for the past forty years.
Judging by his latest album and his most recent work with his quintets Us Five and Sound Prints (co-led by trumpeter Dave Douglas), it seems that tenor sax player and composer Joe Lovano may have reached similar conclusions.
Cross Culture, his third release with Us Five, is made up almost entirely of original compositions -- a return to form for the group, whose first album, Folk Art, also eschewed standards in favor of new works. (To be fair, the group’s second release, Bird Songs, is hardly a tribute record either -- although it included reinterpretations of Charlie Parker standards like “Yardbird Suite,” the bulk of the album is made up of imaginative takes on lesser-known compositions from the legendary sax player, who himself was a master of reconfiguring jazz standards of his day.)
Cross Culture is also an exploration of musical styles from across the globe -- and from across generations. The members of Us Five range in age from 28 (fresh-faced bassist Esperanza Spalding) to 60 (Lovano’s birthday was December 29th), and bring with them a variety of influences and backgrounds. One of the group’s two drummers, Francisco Mela, emigrated from Cuba to the US in 2000, and bassist Peter Slavov -- who subs in for Spalding on a few of the album’s tracks -- grew up in Bulgaria.
The album also stands out for its guest appearances from the West African guitarist Lionel Loueke -- who recently earned praise for his latest album, a collaboration with crossover pianist Robert Glasper called Heritage. Loueke integrates himself with subtlety into the rhythm section of Us Five, adding punctuation throughout the record and a free-flowing improvisation on the album closer, "PM" -- a composition inspired by the late legendary drummer Paul Motian.
Of course, this isn't to say that Lovano has by any means sworn off standards -- nor should he. His version of Billy Strayhorn's "Star-Crossed Lovers" (also known as "Pretty Girl") originally from Duke Ellington's 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder, might be the only non-original on the album -- but it's a fluid and modernized take on the ballad that fits in beautifully between two somewhat spiky tunes. It's an example, perhaps, of how standards should be used -- sparingly, and with good taste.
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