Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
I have a pretty simple job description: Go to something, watch it, and then tell you about it in a way that gives you a good snapshot of what I saw. I do this about 30-40 times a year, so I’d like to think I’m pretty accomplished at it. And yet, there I was in the center aisle of the Swyer Theatre, people streaming past me after Joe Lovano/Us Five had blown the place up real good, and thinking, “What the hell am I going to say? I mean, besides ‘HOLY SHIT! THAT WAS AWESOME!’”
Us Five, Joe Lovano’s most devilish project yet, is unlike any other animal in the zoo. First, it’s got two drummers – not unheard of in the rock world, but if there are two percussionists onstage in jazz, one of them is usually playing some kind of hand drums. Also, no jazz group I can think of uses drums the way Us Five deploys them. Instead of the drummers driving the train and offering an occasional solo or counter, the relationship here is much more reciprocal: One drummer is either soloing or counter-soloing almost all the time; and Lovano and the other players spend a fair amount of time chasing the drums, not the other way around.
Most importantly, Us Five acts as a unit – more than any band on the menu, in jazz or otherwise. Oh, there were plenty of solo spots, including Lovano’s moment in the clear on tenor sax at the front of the opener “Us Five.” But the whole of Us Five is greater than the sum of its parts, regardless of how amazing those parts may be. Lovano may have played in an open area downstage from the rest of the group, but he was acting and reacting just as much as his partners. That’s more necessary than usual, because when it comes to changes in tune, tone or time, this band literally turns on a dime.
From the first note of “Us Five” to the closing crash of “Yardbird Suite,” Us Five played five tunes in forty-five minutes with no breaks and few visible transitions: For the most part, the changes just happened, without so much as a nod or a wink from anyone. There are ballet companies that don’t have this kind of cohesion and flexibility. The performance pattern held true for the rest of the 100-minute set as Us Five played music from all of their Blue Note releases, including the latest disc Cross Cultures. And while everything that flew through the air was caught with Joe Jacoby dexterity, the smiles, laughter and eye-pops that came from bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela showed that there were unexpected musical moments that both surprised and delighted.
It was pointed out to me that when Spalding brought her Radio Music Society to The Egg, she packed the much-larger Hart Theatre. With Us Five, she just plays bass, and you never saw somebody having a better time not being “The Star!” Spalding’s power and possession is matched only by her impeccable sense of lyric, and she shined in both solo and support. Brown and Mela’s respective drum kits showed how differently they approached the gig: Brown’s down-low cymbals had him coming from a hard-core traditional place, while Mela’s high-up configuration allowed him to accessorize his mammoth contributions with some percussion exotica. Pianist James Weidman was the cool-down point, lowering the temperature when Lovano pinned the needle. That may sound like Weidman didn’t take any chances, but his solos were both creative and robust, particularly on the closer “Our Daily Bread.”
I was at the Jazz Connect Conference in New York City a couple of weeks ago, where Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s keynote message was this: “Jazz is alive, and will never die… because we won’t let it!” That’s all good, but to my mind, jazz will never die as long as artists believe that taking big risks can bring big creative rewards – and then, like the volcanic entity that is Joe Lovano/Us Five, walk that walk.