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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano respects those who've gone before him. He is the son of Cleveland's saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano, an apprentice in the bands of Woody Herman, Mel Lewis and Paul Motian.

Lovano's new album pays tribute to saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Joe Lovano's Us Five on Charlie Parker's tune "Passport," where they grab one line from the melody and turn it into a catchy repeater riff. It's from their new album of Parker tunes, "Bird Songs."

In the 1940s, Charlie Parker, nicknamed Bird, was a prime mover behind the new style of bebop, with its refined harmonies, offbeat rhythms and abstract melodies played at breakneck speed. Bird's saxophone style was the key: Even musicians who played other instruments modeled their styles on his, and his compositions sounded very like his improvisations. That mirroring gives his best records amazing coherence.

Here's Parker on his "Moose the Mooche."

(Soundbite of song, "Moose the Mooche")

WHITEHEAD: Bird's tunes and improvisations are such a good fit, it's not surprising other musicians who play them aim for the same cohesion. But on "Bird Songs", Joe Lovano looks for new ways into the material.

Here's his take on "Moose the Mooche."

(Soundbite of song, "Moose the Mooche")

WHITEHEAD: When Joe Lovano plays Charlie Parker tunes, he may lower the tempo and temperature, as on "Moose the Mooche" where he brings out Parker's lyricism and blues feeling. Or he'll look for some parallel to Parker's method. The quintet classic "Ko-Ko" featured Bird's alto sax and Max Roach's drums. Lovano plays "Ko-Ko" on his usual tenor, in a trio with Us Five's double drummers: Francisco Mela from Cuba and New Jersey's Otis Brown III. That open format gives them all plenty of elbow room, and lets Lovano show off his broad and tender tone.

(Soundbite of song, "Ko-Ko")

WHITEHEAD: On "Ko-Ko," Joe Lovano moves away from Charlie Parker's sound while invoking his spirit. Bird loved draping new melodies over the chords to old tunes; on "Blues Collage," Lovano, pianist James Weidman and new star bassist Esperanza Spalding each play and improvise on a different Parker blues tune. It's an exercise in fortuitous counterpoint.

(Soundbite of song, ""Blues Collage")

WHITEHEAD: Joe Lovano's album "Bird Songs" makes the implicit point that everyone in modern jazz draws on Charlie Parker some kind of way. Bird was a key inspiration for Lovano's own dexterity on several saxophones here: tenor and alto, mezzo-soprano and the newfangled aulochrome, which looks and sounds like conjoined twin soprano saxes. He also learned a lot from John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and drummer and sometime boss Paul Motian, but Lovano pours it all into his own touching, sweetly melancholy sound.

Retooling Parker tunes, he confirms the way to honor an innovator is not by being a copycat, but by finding your own voice.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for eMusic.com and author of the new book "Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide." He reviewed "Bird Songs" by Joe Lovano's Us Five on the Blue Note label. You'll find a link to a performance by the band recorded last month at the Village Vanguard, where they played compositions featured on the new album, on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

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