Anything goes with these five. Us Five, that is—Joe Lovano’s newest supergroup that leveled the Egg this past weekend. This group explore the outer limits of creative improvisation in a postmodern rhythmic soundscape where dueling drummers (Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela) take turns at color and time, and bassist Esperanza Spalding (no introduction needed—she won a freaking Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011) anchors the center.
They were able to provide an absolute shocker of an opener with the tune “Us Five” from the groups release Folk Art. The eponymous track goes about as far out into Ornette Coleman land as you can imagine, with short outburst-like phrases that stop and start eventually working into a fiendish, uptempo swing that itself putters out. Without stopping, it works into another far-out groove, this time with a modern Elvin Jones-ish ride pattern, and Lovano blowing whatever he fells like blowing. Just when you don’t know how far out they can go, they bring it back in with a calm rubato on Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” Parker’s tunes provide a kind of umbilical cord from this group to the bop, and specifically the saxophone tradition. Brown and Mela smiled at each other as the rubato made its way to a spirited swing that positively reached for the clouds with the drummers interlocking cymbal blasts.
Spalding’s tone on the midrange of the bass spoke right through the drummers’ sonic spectrum. Rather than recycle lines during her solos, she instead drew on her potent imagination and played as naturally as she sings. Anything she hears simply comes right through her.
Lovano dramatically meandered around the stage, pantomiming during the more raucous numbers like “Drum Chant,” which sounded like a wild rumpus. This one was like a comedic, operattic stomp, and Spalding was further able to prove herself as the psychic anchor as the bass essentially took over the melody and provided the only static piece to an otherwise chaotic space.
Pianist James Weidman always shines through all the layers as he provides a running commentary to Lovano’s jest. During Weidman’s solo on “Yardbird Suite,” Brown sat out at the beginning and let Mela ride the cymbals and provide the swing, thus facilitating an incredible buildup. Weidman’s genius, however, is in his ability to build through swells as the volume and intensity wane.
After playing their opening numbers and introducing the group to the crowd, Us Five dipped into Billy Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” as arranged on their newest release Cross Culture. Weidman started this one out with a masterful meditation that served perfectly to introduce the scene. “Come share my eternity,” go the original lyrics, and Lovano’s husky tenor served perfectly to convey that sentiment. He is a bold performer with a huge presence, like one of the great Italian opera singers.
As if there weren’t enough surprises and timbrel textures to chew on, Lovano whipped out the Aulochrome for his blues “Big Ben.” Like the saxophone, the Aulochrome is the vision of a Belgian craftsman who essentially fused together two soprano saxophones with a single keyboard down the middle that allows for a whole world of polyphonic saxophonic stylings. The instrument looks a bit like a two-headed serpent, and when Lovano breathes life into it, the two heads may talk on their own, have a conversation, or absolutely scream at each other.