The Spring Quartet were one of the big name bands at Gateshead, and one of the reasons I was drawn to the festival this year. The opportunity to see Joe Lovano on sax in a band with Jack DeJohnette on drums, plus new sensation Esperanza Spalding on bass and her usual sideman Leo Genovese on piano seemed to good to pass up.
But it suffered in the way supergroups sometimes do: it just wasn’t as good as its constituent parts. DeJohnette was superb, playing with a light dynamism that was eye opening. It is several years since I had last seen him play, and it was a joy to see him on such form. Worth the trip down to Gateshead for that alone.
I have seen Lovano many times, and sometimes he is invigorating and enthralling, sometimes a little cool and unemotional; unfortunately this time round he was the latter. Maybe it was because the double-tenor line up of Polar Bear earlier in the day had provided a surfeit of reeds; maybe he had an off night, or perhaps the band’s material let him simply go through the motions. Either way, whilst exceptionally competent – of course – in this line up, on this evening, he left me somewhat unengaged. He was good, but not brilliant.
Spalding left me completely cold, I’m afraid. Whilst much of the audience was clearly charmed by her singing, I wasn’t. I’d have preferred her to stick to the bass.
At one point she and Genovese picked up saxophones and joined Lovano in a three sax front line. I don’t know why. With one of the world’s best saxophonists in stage, I’d rather just have focused on him.
Fortunately DeJohnette didn’t indulge in this sax orgy, remaining behind his drum kit and pushing the music along. His playing was superlative throughout – fast but unflashy, loose but precise – an absolute masterclass on modern jazz drumming.
The Spring Quartet were supported by a duo of Marius Neset on saxes and Daniel Herskedal on – tuba. Not instrumentation that would normally appeal, but their set was a delight. Herskedal’s playing was very impressive – more so because it was unexpected. Their music seemed rooted in folk forms. Neset exhibited a Nordic cool common to Norwegian reedsmen – cool, but not unemotional.
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The support slot the following evening was more European jazz, thus time from the Pablo Held trio. Inventive and engaging, they played straight through without pause, one tune merging to another.
The main act was the Bill Frisell trio. Frisell plays in many different formats, cruising and mixing genres; this time, it was the trip behind his “Beautiful Dreamers” CD. I have seen him in many guises in the last few years, and somehow he never fails to bring a smile to my face. The is something just so happy about his playing. To my surprise he was put on in the smaller auditorium, making for a much more intimate experience. It was a lovely gig, a joy from start to finish.
This was despite not knowing the music. Working with Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston on drums, Frisell managed to make complex music sound simple. Royston brought a gentle touch to his percussion, sensitive not to overwhelm the guitar and viola. The guitar and viola weaved in between each other.
The whole thing was joyous from start to finish. Just wonderful. A lovely concert.