It had been five years since this world renowned group of jazz masters had gone on tour together before playing to a full house last Saturday night in Kalamazoo.
Fontana Director David J. Baldwin made the introduction from the Dalton Center Recital Hall stage at Western Michigan University for this special event. Celebrated saxophonist Joe Lovano, drummer Jack DeJohnette, Argentinian pianist Leo Genovese, and bassist Esperanza Spalding — all innovative bandleaders in their own right with decades of collective experience playing with the world’s greatest jazz masters — hadn’t performed as a group since their 35-date world tour in the spring of 2014.
Their electric reunion, brought to Southwest Michigan by Fontana in partnership with the Black Arts & Cultural Center, literally raised the temperature in the room on a balmy spring evening.
They played magnificently, offering original compositions from each musician in the nearly two-hour show that lead with Joe Lovano’s “Spring Day,” a busy, full, melodious 10-minute piece during which Lovano took a break from his driving tenor sax while the quartet became a trio and the melody was interspersed with a dissonant piano crescendo from Genovese. Spalding also offered a trademark bass virtuoso solo before Lovano returned to the forefront again with his playing.
Grammy-winning saxophonist, composer and producer Lovano largely led the show of 10 songs, including an encore performance, playing tenor and soprano sax as well as a flute, stepping away from the group during each tune for little breaks before returning, often to contribute to a rising crescendo and wall of sound.
Though each accomplished musician alternately took the lead, offering marvelous goosebump-inducing solos, ultimately sharing the space with unique style and grace, proving themselves individually and collectively a force to be reckoned with.
Highlights included drummer Jack DeJohnette’s “Herbie’s Hands Cocked” during which Spalding’s beautiful bent notes on bass complemented Genovese’s moving back and forth between playing the grand piano and tinkling notes on a smaller adjacent keyboard; Spalding’s “Work of Art,” a piece dedicated to the “very brave men, women and children of the art and creative industry who may be caught up in said industry,” which began with her a cappella singing reminiscent of Sarah Vaughn, with wonderful phrasing that gave way to all the instruments coming in for a piece full of ease and moments of meaningful pauses of silence; as well as Genovese’s bright and lively “Ethiopian Blues” full of satisfyingly dissonant wild piano runs and his “Priestess of the Night,” which began with a ghoulish, classical keyboard riff that became a lovely duet with Lovano that then turned downright funky when DeJohnette and Spalding brought in the drum and bass.
Their masterful playing was undoubtedly joyful for performers and audience alike with head bobbing, toe-tapping and wide smiles all around. By the end of the extraordinarily high-energy show, Genovese’s topknot had shifted to the left side of his head and the entire audience had leapt to their feet — twice — in a great cacophony of applause.
Fontana Chamber Arts