Last Monday, The Spring Quartet closed out the 2018-2019 Cornell Concert Series at Bailey Hall. The Spring Quartet is an on-and-off jazz project by drumming mainstay Jack DeJohnette, acclaimed saxophonist Joe Lovano, established keyboardist Leo Genovese and starlet bassist Esperanza Spalding. Although Spalding’s bio in the concert program read, “#@&! accolades,” it was evident that the combined talent and pedigree of these musicians would make for a jazz force to be reckoned with. I’ve been a fan of Esperanza Spalding for a year now, and I was very excited for her return to Cornell and to see her live for the first time. Bailey Hall was sold out, and my expectations and excitement for this concert were high.
The first bad sign was that the crowd was composed mostly of older folks from the Ithaca area. I spotted very few students, and those that I did see were big jazz fans. While this isn’t necessarily unpleasant, an eager young crowd is indicative of a certain endorsement for a jazz show. I didn’t sense the excited energy that past Cornell Concert Series shows had from their student audiences.
However, when the quartet took the stage and played their opener, “Spring Day,” I was put at ease. The song woke up with a flurry of noise. The band slowly began to play in sync, as the song got ready for the day. All of a sudden, the groove hit its stride, as if to say, We’re off into the day. As each challenge or incident occurred, the band would represent it with an unexpected hit of the snare or a rapid keyboard run by Genovese. The melody got crazier and crazier until finally the groove was reiterated and the song ended on a snare hit. Perhaps we got too drunk and fell in the bushes. Or maybe something darker. This opening was one of the strongest moments of the night.
The band was tight, creative and supremely talented. While DeJohnette grooved on his standard drum kit, Genovese noodled on his grand piano and an auxiliary Rhodes keyboard, Spalding thumped on her upright bass and Lovano led the way on his tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and flute. Other highlights of the show were “The Ethiopian Blues,” where the central theme was repeated, altered and played upon beautifully. It was also a treat to hear “Work of Art,” a piece from Spalding’s rare album Exposure. The song features Spalding on vocals in addition to her bass duties (which I wish happened more often). It was a sarcastic and caustic criticism of the world’s music institutions, which demand a submission from artists before they grant money to fund their artistic creations. “Take the word ‘submission’ any way you like,” Spalding remarked.
While these moments were very strong for the trio, the remaining songs in the concert confused me. They performed a few works that the quartet’s members had composed for different projects, such as DeJohnette’s “Herbie’s Hand Cocked” and “Priestess of the Mist” and Lovano’s “In the Land of Ephesus.” There was a huge disconnect during these numbers between the band and the audience. The band set little groundwork in the themes of these songs and changed the structure so drastically to the point of complete miscomprehension. Yet, the quartet still retained communication with each other. They clearly knew what was going on. I discussed these moments with some of my “jazz-head” friends to see if this was due to perhaps just my inexperience with jazz music. They agreed: Whatever the quartet was doing was way over our heads. It was as if the quartet was fluently speaking a complex language only they could understand.
Ultimately, the reason for my disappointment with The Spring Quartet’s concert was that often, they were inaccessible to the audience. I don’t want the quartet to “dumb down” their art, but I do believe that establishing a stronger framework for their performance would have been very effective in sharing their intense passion and creativity. This relationship clicked a few times during the show and those moments were very special. Otherwise, I spent the remainder of the two-hour runtime feeling left out of what the musicians were accomplishing on the stage.
While the performance failed to meet my expectations, I’m still hoping for a chance to see an Esperanza Spalding solo concert. I must also applaud The Cornell Concert Series, which has given incredible artists the platform to reach the Cornell and Ithaca communities alike. I look forward to seeing what’s in store for next season.
James Robertson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org