I expected Joe Lovano, after an association dating back to 1981, to offer tribute to Paul Motian — the legend who died just two months before the saxist began Cross Culture. Instead, Lovano begins with a sun-drenched burst of joy.
“Blessings in May” swings with a floorboard-rearranging verve, as Lovano switches from tenor to G-mezzo horns alongside pianist James Weidman, bassists Peter Slavov and Esperanza Spalding and drummers Francisco Mela (on the left) and Otis Brown III (on the right). Their tornadic polyrhythms — ever moving, ever surprising, yet also ever in tandem — give the song this layered sense of blissful exaltation.
If Lovano was feeling melancholic in the aftermath of his personal loss, he wasn’t showing on this date.
Now, attentive listeners might hear something of Lovano’s work with the Motian Trio, which also featured Bill Frisell, in the ringing explorations of Lionel Loueke’s guitar and the lovely G-mezzo ruminations on the new composition “Journey Within.” Later, as Lovano tears into “Royal Roost,” a hard-driving old-school bebop number, it certainly recalls his quartet work in the last decade with Motian and Hank Jones, too.
But, really, it’s not until the album-closing “PM” that Lovano directly references Motian. It’s more than worth the wait, however, as Lovano and Us Five — with the adventuresome West African guitarist Loueke now at the fore — tangle and untangle over a sizzling, open-ended rhythm. Lovano opens with a series of curiosity-filled outbursts, then follows the song’s tribal bass line into a series of fleet excursions. When Loueke joins in the proceedings, he does so with a furious, serrated daring.
Elsewhere, Lovano offers a total of 8 more originals to go with his lushly emotional take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Star Crossed Lovers.” Weidman’s delicately conveyed asides, like twilit whispers, are particularly effective here, though the song’s central element remains Lovano’s buttery smooth horn. It’s really the only time Lovano pauses to take stock on Cross Culture, and the beauty of it is shattering.
Long-time fans might think they remember both “Modern Man” (a duet with drummer Ed Blackwell from Lovano’s 1990 effort From the Soul) and “Myths and Legends” (a Lovano-commissioned performance by the String Trio of New York in the late 1990s), but both — in keeping with the forward-moving theme here — have been completely redesigned.
“Myths and Legends” is born anew as a tenor sax feature, though that rather staid term hardly does justice to the mysterious, strange and otherworldly undercurrents moving just beneath the surface of both this free-form tune, and its succeeding title track. “Cross Culture,” though it commences with a more conventional prancing cadence, finds Lovano adding additional beats from a stirring variety of elements — including gongs, log drums and shakers. (Lovano then returns to several of these sounds for the thunderous “Drum Chant.”)
“Modern Man,” meanwhile, offers an eruption of rhythm in the hands of Mela Brown. Lovano, switching now to aulochrome, replicates the frenetic sound of two (or maybe more) saxophones as they thrillingly search, then cry and then curse. It’s just another example of how Lovano continues to push himself, even in times when anyone else — and perhaps understandably — might have fallen into a moment of quiet nostalgia.
In this way, he honors his old friend Paul Motian, a restless jazz adventurer, in the best way possible: Not by memorializing him, but by picking up his torch and running like hell.