Is there a more buoyant personality in jazz than Joe Lovano? The 59-year-old multi-reed player and composer brought his Us Five band into Scullers Thursday night (September 13), "glad to be home" – home being the US, after a tour that brought the band to Taipei and Bogata. "Phew!" Lovano exclaimed. And then he was off -- rounded, rich strings of tenor sax notes a cappella before bringing in this superb and unusual quintet: pianist James Weidman, the star bassist Esperanza Spalding, and two drummers, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela.
The tune was out of Charlie Parker, but transformed, flitting phrases of Bird that flew out and turned into something else over the cross-rhythms of all those drums. You might expect a two-drummer band to be loud, and I guess it was. But it was never overbearing. True, I've heard the band with better balance –Weidman, on the other side of the stage, wasn't as up in the mix as I would have liked, and I've heard Lovano's horns better too. But the churn and flow of this band is just about irresistible. Brown and Mela are like two poles of a rhythmic axis, tilting the band this way and that, finishing each other phrases, alternating spare and busy patterns, or just laying out when Weidman on those occasions when needed nothing more than one set of brushes.
Lovano says the band's third album, due in January, will be called "Cross Culture," and you could hear the West Indies and Latin America dancing through the band's rhythms and Weidman's rich chords and melodies. Or they could get more abstract – like the wonderful title tune from the band's first album, Folk Art. It's a kind of slipped-cog mechanism of continuous rhythm and a repeating odd-shaped phrase that could lope on forever. Us Five took it further out than they did the last time I saw them – in fact, I think it's still playing somewhere.
There was another Parker tune later in the set (again, from the band's Bird Songs album), "Yardbird Suite," again transformed, slowed down and Latinized, as was Lovano's Neapolitan dance number, "Viva Caruso." Lovano played all his horns, and on that last one, even his strange double-soprano sax, the aulochrome. Not my favorite of his horns, but in this case, it sounded just right – a multi-phonic sound of joy as Lovano traded phrases with his two drummers, whipping around to face them in surprise and delight before turning back to the audience for another blast.