Review by Michael G. Nastos
Jazz is essentially an African-American folk art, elements not lost on Joe Lovano as he presents this all-original program of progressive music. His updated quintet Us Five is one of his freshest units in some time, with bassist Esperanza Spalding, the criminally underrated pianist James Weidman, and two stir-the-pot drummers in Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III. Together they fulfill Lovano's vision as a band that is not afraid to take many chances, stay within a bop-based tradition, and cut loose on many levels in terms of adding diverse elements to this mix of music. Lovano is noticeably restless, using his reliable tenor sax, but also straight alto, clarinet, and taragato. The drummers not only play their standard kits, but ethnic percussion instruments from many continents, while Spalding is maturing and growing exponentially into a formidable voice on her instrument. Weidman is simply brilliant throughout, largely ignored since his early days with Abbey Lincoln until now, but there's no reason he should be so underestimated or slighted. The title track is as intriguing as its concept, dipping into modal jazz via a stairstep melody and slipstream steady swing that staggers slightly (influenced by one beer?) punctuated by the drummer's "solo" and Weidman's outstanding bop step out. Always an outside-the-box thinker, Lovano's tenor stretches in unique, post-Coltrane mannerisms for "Us Five" surrounding his rhythm makers and the chords of the piano, while the band explores improvisation in no time during the wondrous "Ettenro," completely untethered by any standardized structure. The distinctive and most enjoyable "Dibango" is a slightly squawky funk with Lovano on taragato, up in a high, sustained register, a bit goofy, and very reminiscent of Don Pullen's great tune "Big Alice." "Powerhouse" is the straitlaced neo-bop tune à la Thelonious Monk that Lovano has always favored, his clarinet comes out on the delicate, serene soul blues "Page 4," and the appropriately titled "Wild Beauty" is not so much exotic as it is edgy within a ballad framework. Of the many excellent and diverse projects Joe Lovano has produced and won critical acclaim for, this ranks with his very best, as strong an album as he has ever produced, with musicianship at an extremely high level, and well-conceived compositions that continue to identify him a true original. Folk Art, close to his definitive statement, is highly recommended, and should be considered a candidate for Jazz Album of 2009.