Spring Quartet

The Spring Quartet: Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Lovano. Photo by Robert Torres/courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

It’s been a busy week of live shows — Patricia Barber at Scullers, Seth Meicht’s Big Sound Ensemble at the Lily Pad, a Mardi Gras show with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble at the Regattabar and, last night, the Spring Quartet at Sanders Theatre.

I won’t offer a blow-by-blow review of any of these shows — each of which was excellent in its own way. But I have some thoughts on the concert-going experience and I’d be interested in any feedback, whether about these shows or about going to shows in general.

My thoughts were spurred by the Spring Quartet show. In a lot of ways, this Celebrity Series of Boston event was a superior presentation: Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, and Leo Genovese, a multi-generational collaboration of top artists in one of the areas finest venues. The playing throughout this generous show (1 hour, 45 minutes) was beautiful, and often inspired. It was a sold-out house, and that in itself was inspiring.

And yet. . . and yet. I wasn’t blown away. At least, not as blown away as I wanted to be. The tunes were interesting,  Joe played all his horns (including flute), Esperanza sang one of her pretty, wordless songs accompanying herself on bass (the kind of thing she used to do all the time in her Boston days before crossover stardom), and DeJohnette, aside from playing well, got some of the best sound I’d ever heard from a drum set in Sanders Theatre. That is, he was able to play quietly, but with presence, so that individual cymbal hits and soft rim shots registered in the front of the mix.

But on the whole, I found the show a bit tame. I was most drawn to Genovese as a soloist — he’s a stunning player, mixing up rhythms with extended right-hand lines, playing with form, breaking up his fleet runs with unruly chord clusters. He seemed the only one up there constantly of the verge of committing mayhem. And that was part of it. The show seemed like a series of excellent solos, whereas I wanted some kind of group frenzy. By which I don’t necessarily mean chaos. A couple of weeks back I caught Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” band and again I was impressed with his core trio — there seemed to be so much going on at once, especially in the way bassist Ben Street created a continuous variety of patterns even as he “accompanied” Pérez’s piano and worked the groove. The Spring Quartet show seemed more like a series of very fine solos.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the show, I would gladly see this band again. They had an amiable stage presence, took turns making introductions, played with humor, and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other. And the sequencing of tunes was thoughtful and varied — a couple of miscues about what tune to play next even provided brief comedy. But — except for a short Spalding  tune where she picked up an alto, Genovese played soprano, and Lovano played tenor, all to shrieking, ecstatic effect — I was missing that sense of unhinged group invention.

The Patricia Barber show, on the other hand, came at live performance from the other end. This was jazz in a club, not a concert hall. But aside from these differences, you could say Barber did everything wrong. She didn’t announce tunes, or even talk to the audience, until deep into her set. She and her band played for little more than an hour, with no encore. And the set had no clear pacing or arc.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

But this band was swinging in sync from beginning to end — even in their “mistakes,” which cracked them up a couple of times. At times guitarist Gilad Hekelsman would look back at Barber as if concerned about where to come in. But there was an intensity to this band, the constant pressure of group swing, in drummer Patrick Mulcahy’s springy subdivision of the beat, bassist Ross Pederson freely going in and out of tempo without ever losing the groove, and Barber’s piano lines, which she invented wily-nily, or so it seemed, as the mood struck her.

At some point I thought, this is “jazz.” This is what I think of when I hear that word. It was the type of casual but intense music that you’d expect from the kind of three-set evening you used to be able to catch as a matter of course in jazz clubs but that are now relegated to jam sessions in bars (Wally’s in the South End is a gratifying exception). The fact is, even “clubs” aren’t really clubs any more. The music economy and ticket prices being what they are, every club show — at the Regattabar or Scullers, but also at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York or any other high-end venue — are “concerts.”  You buy a ticket for one show only and the band had better deliver — a narrative arc with calibrated pacing and a big climax as a payoff.

At the end of her show, Barber said something about this being it for “this set.” As though there was going to be another. I think the standing, cheering crowd would have been happy to stay. And, in some time of yore, that’s what you’d do — maybe by promising to buy another drink or two as a “minimum.” Maybe the set didn’t have that “concert arc,” but it was cool, and in another setting I would have ordered another drink and stayed for another set Just in order to hear what might happen next.

I’m reminded of something Revolutionary Snake Ensemble leader Ken Field said after one of their tunes on Fat Tuesday: “I’m sure we’re just as surprised as you are by where that tune ended up.” It would be nice to experience that mutual surprise more often.

3 thoughts on “Music diary: Spring Quartet, Patricia Barber, et al., and the live experience

  1. Rob Battles

    As usual, a thought-provoking essay. After enough time spent glancing at my watch during some live music experiences, and noting those, after the fact, during which I’d been drawn thoroughly into what was created, I’m reminded by what you’ve written why investing time to spend with improvising artists is a necessary investment. Gilad Hekelsman was part of a Paul Motian thing in New York City last month, and I was thoroughly surprised and moved by what he played.

    Reply
  2. Jeff Turton

    Nice piece Jon, thought provoking and something that I have contemplated for many years. I used to chalk it up to just seeing way too much music but I’m not sure that’s all of it. First I have mixed feelings about Joe. I have been hearing Joe since the late 70’s and for some reason I used to connect with his playing emotionally and always wanted to hear him but at some point I lost the emotional involvement. Those shows with Joe and Billy Drewes as the front line horn players were always exciting. Intellectually Joe’s a brilliant player and I am continually amazed at some of the things he does. Unfortunately I no longer connect with him emotionally. I always leave shows featuring Joe feeling similar to way you did and it doesn’t matter who he plays with. After all these years, I have come to prefer the club environment for my listening. I don’t know if it’s the intimacy of the venue but I’ve always felt players are able to raise their game in a club. A big concert venue can be stifling and I think most players don’t engage in the same way as they do in a club environment. I also think as an audience member your expectations are different in a Concert venue as opposed to a club. I think I expect the musicians to be looser and freer in a club and I’m happy to hear the rough edges, whereas in a Concert I expect more structure. Maybe I’m over thinking it and certainly not every concert I’ve attended has left me feeling less engaged but I’m thinking that might be part of it.

    Reply
  3. Ken Field

    I always used to describe performances with Willie Alexander’s Persistence of Memory Orchestra as a balancing act between Willie’s genius and group disaster. I’m very lucky to play with amazingly great musicians in the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble – they do a good job of avoiding disaster. But since our approach involves improvised arrangements as well as individual and group soloing, I hope that we are able to keep things fresh and exciting for our musicians as well as for our audiences.

    Reply

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