On Jan. 22, saxophonist Joe Lovano brought Us Five to the Mint in Los Angeles. The quintet—including pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela—played for nearly two hours and matched the giddy enthusiasm of the standing-room-only audience of 200.
Lovano was a towering presence throughout the night. The spotlight reflected off his large silver medallion as he wordlessly gazed above the crowd. He opened with a brief solo intro before the band jumped in on “Us Five,” a track from the group’s 2009 Folk Artalbum. From there, each band member took turns introducing themselves with a fast-paced solo.
The majority of the set focused on Lovano’s compositions and Us Five’s newest release,Cross Culture. Lovano’s horn, dense and boisterous, flirted with the outer realm but always maintained a pulsating accessibility. On “PM,” Brown and Mela gave an impressive display of guttural drive, seamlessly finishing each other’s phrases. Lovano had the best spot in the house for their interplay, nodding along while nestled between both kits. Weidman started a slow solo that built into a fiery abyss before giving way to Spalding.
A remarkable part of the show was the devout attention paid to the bassist. Every time Spalding took a solo, a pin-drop silence washed over the otherwise chatty crowd.
Lovano made brief dalliances with Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko” before drifting away from the rapid-fire melody. He returned fully committed to Parker for “Yardbird Suite.” After a rubato intro from Lovano, Brown and Mela punctuated each other’s deft swing. It was as straightahead as things got for the set, and it didn’t last long. Lovano blew a bellowing honk before Weidman dug deep into a searching solo, while “Star Crossed Lovers,” the lone standard on Cross Culture, was a breathy ballad that lowered the pulse of the room a little. Lovano stretched out, giving a thoughtful solo that rang with an honest awareness.
Lovano returned alone for an encore. He walked into the darkness of the room without amplification and blew a heartfelt swirl for the encircling audience. He was briefly transformed into a wandering busker, capturing the intimacy of the tiny venue. It was a raw display of artistry and the perfect end to a memorable set.