Joe Lovano: “Folk Art”

folk art

Jazz music is essentially an African-American folk art form– or at least that’s what Joe Lovano says, explaining the title and concept behind his latest Blue Note release. Truthfully, you can enjoy the music perfectly well without giving its thematic thrust a second thought, but if you’re curious, I think what Lovano means is something like this: That jazz music is a particularly communal and communicative art form, wherein different members of the culture share the same common elements– the same building blocks, as it were– and put them together in new and varied ways. A jazz song, then, becomes something like a folk tale– even when the basic plot is the same, the details are different from one teller to the next, and any given story might be built from pieces of other stories that have been passed around in similar ways.

Given the thematic framework he’s working in, it is perhaps a touch ironic that Lovano writes every track on Folk Art; after close to two dozen recordings for Blue Note, this is his first of all-original material. That said, his compositions here reflect a certain pliability. I’m not sure if Lovano hopes that some of these songs become folk standards in their own right or if he’s simply trying to prove his point, but the songs here are all simple, primal– the kinds of songs that are open-ended and invite all sorts of interpretation and embellishment, seemingly written for the purpose of being passed around and explored in different ways by different performers.

Lovano himself is particularly restless on this outing, both as a composer and a musician; perhaps he’s rejuvenated by his brand new band, called Us Five, a quintet of young players that includes a pair of drummers– Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III– as well as the celebrated bassist Esperanza Spalding and the pianist James Weidman. These musicians light a mighty fire on these songs, playing with an elemental passion; the drummers, in particular, give the music a feeling of returning to its roots, mixing ethnic hand percussion with the traditional jazz drum kit. And Lovano sounds youthful and adventurous, even forgoing his usual saxophone in favor of other reed instruments on a few songs.

If there’s any song here that stands as the set’s definitive piece– perhaps the definitive piece of Lovano’s entire, storied career– it’s the title cut, which represents something of a deconstructionist take on jazz. It begins as a sort of primal blues and gradually morphs into classic modalism, only to unravel in its episodic middle section, giving way to exploratory and totally unhinged playing from the ensemble; then, steadily, they build it back up and return to where they started. The song’s mirror image is “Drum Song,” another tune that shuffles around the building blocks of jazz by starting with open-ended, tribal drumming before gradually building into a more traditional jazz composition.

But Lovano has more on his mind than simply playing with jazz’ fundamental components; he also seems bent on showing its range, and as a composer he’s positively aglow with different possibilities. “Wild Beauty,” for example, is a ballad that lives up to its name, achingly melodic even as its edges seem frayed by the eccentricities of the performers and the combustible spirit of their interplay. “Dibango,” on the other hand, is something else altogether, an almost cartoonishly fun and funky piece in which Lovano squawks like some exotic bird on his taragato. “Page 4” is a deep blues, and album-closing “Etterno” is a wild bit of improvisation.

But if there’s one piece that summarizes the album’s remarkable achievement, it’s the opener, the aptly-named “Powerhouse.” Clocking in at just four minutes, it’s a concise but wildly-swinging tune that’s firmly rooted in bop; its tropes are ones that anyone who’s at all familiar with jazz has heard a million times before, and yet there’s a fire to the performances and an elasticity to the composition that bring the familiar sounds to astonishing new places. And that’s the implicit lesson of Folk Art: That with music as boldly elemental and open-ended as jazz, the spirit of invention is never far off. And here, Joe Lovano has it in spades.


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