Joe Lovano and Us Five

Cross Culture

[Blue Note]

Rating: 3½ stars

This much is crystal clear: Joe Lovano is a truly great figure in contemporary jazz. What isn’t clear now – and never has been – is whether he’s the kind of great jazz figure that the music would benefit the most from.

As a tenor and soprano saxophone player, he’s an odd mix of mainstream club professional and fierce abstractionist. Just listen to the opener of his newest disc with his band Us Five. It’s called “Blessings in May” and features Esperanza Spalding – Grammy-winning Best New Artist over Justin Bieber – on bass in one of her four appearances on Lovano’s disc. It’s the first of Lovano’s highly abstract tunes but hardly the last.

Lovano’s tunes are challenging, to put it mildly, both for players and listener, but just as they are no doubt hugely rewarding for the players to perform, they are rewarding for those who take the trouble to listen a few times.

His sound is that of a garden variety club professional tenor player in any Northeastern or Midwestern city. But what he plays with it is often uncommonly daring. What is always so brilliant about Lovano, though, are his recording ideas. This group, Us Five, is that rarity with two working drummers, Otis Brown and Franciso Mela, along with pianist James Weidman and Spalding or fellow bassist Peter Slavov. Also appearing on the disc is guitarist Lionel Loueke, of whom Lovano says, “Lionel doesn’t just play the guitar, he freely integrates himself with the rhythm section and with me in the front line and shares the space in a personal way.”

This is not, then, your father’s jazz quintet, to steal the Madison Avenue cliché. But that leads to what would, I think, be ideal in the jazz world of 2013 – Lovano running his own jazz label or becoming a frequent record producer for some of the greatest jazz talent around.

That has always seemed to me his greatest gift – his immense fountain of creative ideas of how to make and record jazz. In this case, then, with an ever-shifting group anchored by two interacting drummers.

An exceptional record, but you’re going to need to hear it a few times to get a warm feel for just how exceptional it is.

– Jeff Simon


David Bowie

Where Are We Now?

[Digital single/ISO]

Rating: 4 Stars

Tuesday would have been Elvis Presley’s 78th birthday. The King is dead, though not forgotten. David Bowie, on the other hand, is alive and well, and celebrated his 66th birthday on that same Tuesday by quietly releasing his first new recording in 10 years.

On Tuesday morning, the single “Where Are We Now?” showed up on various Facebook posts, with links to the Tony Oursler-directed video for the song. (“Viddy” well, dear reader, via The song is the preview single for the album “The Next Day,” which will be out March 12.

This is a big deal for two reasons. First, it’s a bit of a shock – Bowie appeared to have for all intents and purposes retired. The Thin White Duke seemed to have gracefully morphed into his autumnal years, and though we still needed his always intriguing contributions to the world of popular music he managed to change several times during his career, we felt inclined to give the guy a break, acknowledge that he’d served us more than well and let him go.

Which brings us to the second reason that this sudden appearance of new music is big news. “Where Are We Now?” is a sublime piece of music, a heartrending, reflective bit of subtle musical drama that finds Bowie delivering a stunning Scott Walker-esque vocal drenched in pathos and eerily resigned to the ravaging passage of time. It’s a ballad, not unlike something that might have been on “Station To Station” or even “Hours,” but it moves with languid grace, Bowie’s beautiful vocal sitting atop a gorgeous wash of guitars and keys lovingly assembled by Bowie’s old production sparring partner Tony Visconti. It’s prime Bowie and it proves that the man – even in his semi J.D. Salinger-like exile from the public eye – has never stopped making profoundly moving music.

The video, too, is a stellar piece of work, with images of the Berlin Bowie knew so well in the late ’70s lending to elegant sadness that permeates the song itself.

And just like that, he’s back. It may be Bowie’s birthday, but we’re the ones who’ve been given a gift.

– Jeff Miers


Pere Ubu

Lady From Shanghai

[Fire Records]

Rating: 3 stars

Thirty five years deep in the mire, the mercurial art of David Thomas and Pere Ubu is as oddly disquieting as it was when the band first emerged from Cleveland with 1978’s “The Modern Dance.” More than obviously, much has changed in the broader world of pop culture since that time. But in Thomas’ idiosyncratic musical universe, things remain the same. Tense. Tinged by a sense of impending doom in some cases, and one of inevitable ennui in others. And always, always, just a bit off kilter.

“Lady From Shanghai” is, in its own bizarre way, Pere Ubu’s techno/dance album. One doubts they’ll be bangin’ this one out of the sub-woofers at the dance clubs this weekend, but “Lady” finds Thomas dressing up drum machine grooves with steady bass pulses, threatening to settle into a single groove for more than a minute at a time, and throwing odd sound effects into the mix at will.

Still, this being Pere Ubu, atonality is more common than a catchy chorus, pinpointed intonation being a prerogative Thomas does not always choose to exercise. It’s interesting, bearing in mind the (vague) dance music connotations, that the album opens with the rather alarming “Thanks,” which finds Thomas intoning “You can go to hell” to the tune of Anita Ward’s disco era mega-hit “Ring My Bell.” Is this a stroke of post-modern genius, or is it just plain freaky? Both, I suspect.

“Free White” is classic Thomas, a vocal melody that sounds mildly disappointed in itself, flitting in and out of a melange of synths and treated guitars. “And Then Nothing Happened” reveals Thomas’ debt to Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, a la “Electricity.”

It’s nerve-racking stuff, but in its hypnotic insistence and relentless ability to surprise, “Lady From Shanghai” is classic Pere Ubu. For fans only, certainly, but those fans are in for a treat.

– J.M.


Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Slippery Rock

[Hot Cup]

Rating: 3 stars

Among the more radical groups brought to Buffalo by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s completely indispensable “Art of Jazz” series in its auditorium was the band somewhat outrageously known as Mostly Other People Do The Killing that performed there in 2010. It is typical of the group’s mildly anarchist sledgehammer ironies that its fifth disc is described by bandleader Moppa Elliott as being full of his compositions that were inspired by “lengthy immersion in the smooth jazz recordings of the late ’70s and ’80s.”

Here’s what the in-your-face notes tell you: “Eschewing the trend-chasing tendencies of the majority of their peers, MOPDtK have notably decided to preserve this earlier style of jazz to the benefit of audiences throughout the world.” Wait, there’s more. “Witness the smooth clarion sound of Peter Evans as he floats majestically over a sterile groove. Listen with rapt attention to the heartrending cries of Jon Irabagon as his saxophone whirls around a mechanical hi-hat.” None of which exists to grab your attention while you hear the wild, impudent, avant-garde counterpoint of the band itself, which is exactly the kind of “over-emotive and needlessly expressive jazz of contemporary art house society” that the notes purport to make fun of.

Few people in jazz are having more fun flipping the bird to stodgy listeners than these guys.

– J.S.