Performance Friday, October 28, 2011 | 10 PM

Joe Lovano Us Five

Zankel Hall
The modern saxophone titan fronts his current progressive ensemble in a program that celebrates Charlie "Bird" Parker along with original works.


  • Joe Lovano, Tenor and Soprano Saxophones
  • James Weidman, Piano
  • Esperanza Spalding, Bass
  • Francisco Mela, Drums
  • Otis Brown III, Drums


  • Joe Lovano

    Grammy Award-winning saxophone giant Joe Lovano has distinguished himself for some three decades as a prescient and path-finding force in the arena of creative music. The secret to his success is his fearless ability to push the conceptual and thematic choices he has made in his quest to find new modes of artistic expression within the jazz idiom.

    Since 2009, Lovano's main vehicle for this exploration has been Us Five. The band's most recent release-Bird Songs- is Lovano's 22nd album for Blue Note Records and also marks his 20th year with the label. While Bird Songs is an exploration of the Charlie "Bird" Parker songbook, it breaks the mold of tribute records. At the 2011 Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards, Bird Songs was named Recording of the Year and earned Us Five recognition as the Best Small Ensemble of the Year. It was also the DownBeat Editors' Pick for Album of the Year. Us Five's debut recording-2009's Folk Art-was a wide-ranging set of Lovano's original compositions that earned the quintet the 2010 JJA Jazz Award for Best Small Ensemble of the Year in addition to being named the Best Jazz Group of the Year in the 2010 DownBeat Critics Poll. Lovano was also named JJA's Musician and Tenor Saxophonist of the Year, and DownBeat's Jazz Artist and Tenor Saxophonist of the Year.

    Lovano was born in Cleveland and began playing alto saxophone as a child. A prophetic photo of Lovano as an infant shows him cradled in his mother's arms along with a saxophone. His father, tenor saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano, schooled Lovano not only in the basics, but also in dynamics and interpretation, and regularly exposed him to live performances of international jazz artists such as Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

    Upon graduation from high school, Lovano attended the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. His early professional gigs were as a sideman with organists Lonnie Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, and a three-year tour with the Woody Herman Thundering Herd from 1976 to 1979. After leaving Herman's band, Lovano settled in New York City, where he eventually joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra for its regular Monday-night concert at the Village Vanguard, performing from 1980 to 1992 and recording six albums with the ensemble.

    Lovano joined the Paul Motian band in 1981, and has since worked and collaborated with John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Dave Holland, Ed Blackwell, Michel Petrucciani, Lee Konitz, Abbey Lincoln, Tom Harrell, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, Bob Brookmeyer, and many others. His illustrious relationship with Blue Note Records began in 1991 and includes eight Grammy nominations with a win in the Best Large Ensemble category for 2000's 52nd Street Themes.

    In recent years, Lovano has spent a good deal of time collaborating, both in the studio and the concert hall, with two other premier tenor saxophonists of his generation-Dave Liebman and the late Michael Brecker in the collective Saxophone Summit. After the untimely passing of Brecker, Lovano and Liebman were joined by Ravi Coltrane.

    In early 2008, Lovano replaced Joshua Redman in the tenor saxophone chair of the touring and studio ensemble, SFJazz Collective.

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  • James Weidman

    A valued and talented pianist, James Weidman has been a sideman and accompanist in many settings over the past 20 years, from Abbey Lincoln and Steve Coleman to Kevin Mahogany and Joe Lovano. He has also proven to be an increasingly significant bandleader and composer. His most recent CD, Three Worlds, is arguably his finest recording to date.

    Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, Weidman recalls hearing gospel around the house along with plenty of jazz. He started piano lessons when he was seven and played clarinet, yet it was on organ that he had his first gigs. It was not until attending Youngstown University that he became serious about becoming a jazz musician. Two years after graduating, he moved to New York City to be at the center of the jazz world.

    After a valuable year spent working with Bobby Watson, Weidman had a five year stint with Steve Coleman's Spirit of Life Ensemble. Another significant learning period took place during Weidman's six-year tenure with Abbey Lincoln. Other important associations included two years with Cassandra Wilson, working with Kevin Mahogany for 11 years, and one year with Gloria Lynne.

    While Weidman gained a strong reputation for his ability to accompany a diverse variety of jazz singers, he also appeared regularly in instrumental settings. In the 1990s, he co-led the Afro-Caribbean jazz quartet Taja with saxophonist T. K. Blue. Weidman was also showcased in a trio on People Music, a CD that documents his longtime musical partnership with drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, along with bassist Belden Bullock. In addition, Weidman recorded All About Time, a quartet set with vibraphonist Jay Hoggard and vocals from Charlene Dawn.

    And there is no doubt that James Weidman's career will continue to feature the high-quality modern jazz, creativity, and good taste that has characterized his important work thus far.

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  • Esperanza Spalding

    In one of the most startling achievements in jazz history, bassist Esperanza Spalding captured the world's attention upon earning the title of Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards. A gifted composer with a hypnotic voice, Spalding looks forward to stretching the boundaries of jazz and continuing her evolution as a musician with the 2012 release of Radio Music Society, which she describes as "bombastic and fun-funkier and more upbeat" than her critically acclaimed Chamber Music Society.

    Spalding's 2008 release, Esperanza, remained on the top of the Billboard contemporary jazz chart for over 70 weeks, marking a brilliant beginning for this gifted young artist. Her follow-up, Chamber Music Society, set her on a path to prominence. Inspired by the classical training of Spalding's younger years, Chamber Music Societycombined the spontaneity and intrigue of improvisation with sweet and angular string trio arrangements, resulting in a sound that weaves the innovative elements of jazz, folk, and world music into the enduring foundations of classical chamber music traditions. With her upcoming record, Radio Music Society, Spalding redefines the jazz genre again with an exciting new repertoire of funk, hip-hop, and rock elements fused into songs that are free from categorization.

    When Spalding performs live, the audience can't help but be drawn into her web of sweet vocals and fierce bass lines. She has graced the stages of the finest concert halls and festivals around the world; performed at the White House, the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony, and the BET Awards; and alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder, Wayne Shorter, Joe Lovano, Herbie Hancock, the Roots, and Prince.

    In addition to the Grammy Award, Spalding has been named Rising Star-Acoustic Bass in DownBeat's Critics Poll, awarded Up and Coming Artist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association, and called one of O Magazine's Women on the Rise.

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  • Francisco Mela

    Acclaimed Cuban-born drummer Francisco Mela is a favorite among jazz's elite instrumentalists, including Joe Lovano, John Scofield, JoAnne Brackeen, Kenny Barron, and McCoy Tyner-all of whom cite his charisma, sophistication, and life-affirming spirit as an extension of his incredible talents as a composer and drummer.

    Inspired by his artistic father and the explosive sounds of Irakere, he immersed himself in Cuban traditional music and the jazz being played and performed in his hometown of Bayamo. Mela moved to Boston in 2000 to pursue a degree at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music. The faculty quickly recognized his talents and promptly hired him to teach at the school.

    At the end of 2001, Mela began touring around the world as a member of Jane Bunnette and Spirits of Havana, giving workshops and clinics at various universities. At the end of the tour, the group went to the studio to record Cuban Odyssey, which was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award.

    Fellow Berklee faculty member and world-renowned saxophonist Joe Lovano heard Mela and was immediately impressed, hiring him soon thereafter to play in his quartet. Since 2005, Mela has been an integral part of Lovano's quartet and his new Us Five group.

    In 2007, Mela's unique style and sound was noticed by piano legend Kenny Barron, who invited Mela to join his trio, performing and touring all over the world until late 2009. Soon after, Mela was tapped by jazz legend McCoy Tyner.

    Mela's first CD, Melao, featured Joe Lovano, George Garzone, Anat Cohen, and Lionel Loueke, among others, and was called one of the best albums of the year by All About Jazz. His second release as a leader, Cirio, featured an all-star roster with Mark Turner, Jason Moran, Larry Grenadier, and Lionel Loueke. This fall, he released Tree of Life, featuring his band Cuban Safari and guest vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

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  • Otis Brown III

    New Jersey-native Otis Brown III was destined for success as a drummer and composer. Brown has traveled a path that has led to him to being one of the most in-demand and well-respected musicians today. He began his musical studies at the age of seven and by 12, he was playing lead alto saxophone in the school bands in addition to playing the drums in his Baptist church. After moving to Newark, he continued performing double duty in his school bands, playing snare drum and alto saxophone in a number of ensembles directed by his father.

    Brown decided to pursue music at Delaware State University, where he met legendary trumpeter Donald Byrd. Realizing the potential of the young musician, Dr. Byrd suggested that Brown continue his studies in New York, the jazz center of the world. After graduating from Delaware, he did just that and was awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious New School.

    Brown's career took off from The New School. Since his arrival in New York, he has performed and toured with many musicians, including Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Eric Lewis, Ron Blake, Roy Hargrove, Frank Lacy, Jeremy Pelt, Don Braden, Alex Sipiagin, Marc Ribot, Pete Malinverni, Tim Hagans, Conrad Herwig, John Hicks, Oliver Lake, Aaron Goldberg, Bob Mintzer, George Garzone, Ron Jackson, and other musicians too numerous to mention.

    Brown is especially proud of the work that he's done with some of today's most prolific vocalists. They include Jeanie Bryson (daughter of Dizzy Gillespie), Ronnell Bey, Melissa Walker, Judi Silvano, Lisa Henry, Carla Cook, Vanessa Rubin, Bilal, Tiombe Lockhart, and Peter Cincotti.

    In 1999, Brown's playing garnered the attention of Joe Lovano; he has been performing with him ever since. Brown has toured extensively throughout the US, as well as performing at all of the major festivals abroad.

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"Monk's Mood"
Joe Lovano
Blue Note

Jeff Tamarkin on Joe Lovano

Joe Lovano was only two years old when the iconic American saxophonist Charlie Parker passed away, but as Lovano began to master the instrument himself, it was “Bird” Parker who served as his major influence. So when Lovano comes to Zankel Hall, it’s payback time. Along with his group Us Five, Lovano will perform repertoire composed and inspired by Charlie Parker—music that is also featured on the ensemble’s latest recording, appropriately titled Bird Songs.

“Charlie Parker was one of the most expressive players in jazz and music in general,” says Lovano. “He brought a lot of elements together in his approach. It was all about beauty and love and the passion of expression.”

On Bird Songs, Lovano and Us Five—2011 Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding on bass, James Weidman on piano, and two drummers, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela—don’t try to mimic Parker, but instead use his compositions as a foundation and take off from there.

“It’s an exploration of his work,” says Lovano. “His tunes are timeless in melody and rhythm. I tried to restructure each tune from my own experience. You can’t tell someone else’s story, but you can explore the music and the depth of his genius.”

Us Five has only been together for four years, having released its first album, Folk Art, in 2009. The group began by performing Lovano’s original works before branching out into interpreting standards. Us Five, says Lovano, brings a unique voice to the music it approaches. “Esperanza is very involved rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically,” he says. “From the first time we played together back in 2004, when she was 19, I felt that with her. James is a very funky, soulful player, but with real deep bebop roots, and more freeform conceptions as well. And having two drummers fuels my ideas.”

Now Lovano looks forward to extending to the concert stage the concepts he and the group brought to Bird Songs. “When players can actually transcend their instrument and play music, be creative together as an ensemble,” he says, “magic happens.”
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