I’m as guilty as the next jazz fan of listening mostly to dead guys. Monk, Miles, Mingus, Pops, Diz and Bird rule my roost. This doesn’t exactly perpetuate the future of the music. Be it known there are generations of jazz musicians working at their craft just across the Hudson in New York City, “The Jazz Capital Of The World.” Just recently, Ravi Coltrane (son of John) led a quartet at The Jazz Standard that included the brilliant bassist Christian McBride. Ravi’s Spirit Fiction was one of the best albums of 2012. On that album was a certifiable legend, Joe Lovano, 61, whose own Bird Songs was probably the best album of 2011.
Lovano’s new Cross Culture, his 23rd album for Blue Note, can stake its claim now as one of the two top 2013 albums so far. One reason: besides his core group, UsFive, (pianist James Weidman, bassists Esperanza Spalding and Peter Slavov, drummers Otis Brown and Francisco Mela), the tenor saxophonist has added West African guitar phenom Lionel Loueke.
The only cover in this 11-track adventure is Billy Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers.” Cross Culture is an apt title as Lovano has always been fond of collecting and experimenting with esoteric instruments from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe as well as North and South America, in an effort to promote the concept of a “universal musical language.” Besides his instantly identifiable tenor, Lovano plays G-mezzo soprano sax and some of the aforementioned exotica from far-flung corners of the globe: oborom, tárogató, aulochrome, bells, shakers and an Israeli paddle drum.
Loueke brings his delicious folk strains to six tracks. Lovano says it best: “he freely integrates himself with the rhythm section and with me in the front line, and shares the space in a personal way.”
Heavily percussive since the mid-‘90s, Cross Culture is no exception to the Lovano oeuvre: two drummers plus a myriad of percolatin’ percussion. This fact alone insures an action-packed experience.
Another aptly-named album, Without A Net, by The Wayne Shorter Quartet, is the other 2013 standard-bearer. Shorter, 79, a Newark prodigy, refuses to rest on his considerable laurels, among which are Miles Davis and Weather Report. He’s swingin’ and boppin’ here, flirting with the avant-garde, with dissonance and the kind of brave aesthetic that transcends conventionalism in any shape or form whatsoever. If a young cat had made an album that sounds like this, he’d be regarded as an outlaw, a pusher of genres and the kind of iconoclast that cares not for tradition. This is new-music, and it takes some getting used to. Ultimately, though, it’s rewarding as hell: dense, complicated, circuitous, and yes, genius.
Pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade are all masters in their own right (they’ve been his band for 12 years). Shorter’s tenor and soprano saxophones and the amazing Imani Winds that appear on “Pegasus” (a 23:06 tour-de-force that integrates flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon into the heady mix) have to be digested properly. One listen ain’t gonna do it. As I write, I’ve listened to this thing five times and I’m just starting to really hear it. If I had to sum up this album in one word, which Aquarian writers are always asked to do in this newspaper’s review section, that word would be “astonishing.” These tracks defy gravity. I am, as a mere mortal, awestruck. What makes it even more amazing is that most of these tracks were recorded live. To whip up this kind of magic organically, honestly and right in front of the eyes and ears of an audience is akin to levitating an elephant.
One of the reasons I love jazz so much is that its practitioners are in service to the pieces of music themselves. While it is being played, the concept of entertainment or star power or public persona that so many rock and pop legends strive to maintain is totally transcended by the sheer power and glory of the chords and changes and rhythms. It’s music for music’s sake, the purest and highest goal of all. In fact, to love jazz is to make all the other genres sound better when you go back to them. Hey, I’ve been preaching the tenets of the multi-genre mindset for over 30 years now. In listening to Without A Net and Cross Culture, I am reminded why.
OK, I’ve got that out of my system. It’s time to rock again!