Review: Spring Quartet at the Barbican (Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, Leo Genovese)

L to R: Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette
Barbican, April 2014.
Photo credit: Roger Thomas. All Rights reserved 

Spring Quartet
( Barbican, April 7th 2014. Review by Jon Turney)

The Spring Quartet don’t deal much in simple lines or easy hooks. This co-operative quartet uniting four virtuosi offered an single ninety-minute set that at times challenged my concentration, though evidently not theirs. The opener, saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Spring Day, typified their approach – a brisk theme disposed of briskly, giving way to a determinedly oblique solo from the composer interacting with busy three-way commentary from piano, bass and drums. It is dense music, calling on finely honed performance skills, that can nevertheless come across as oddly austere.

There was more of this to come later on. Pianist Leo Genovese’s Ethopian Blues – sounding neither Ethiopian nor especially bluesy – featured a bout of fierce abstraction, although it also spurred Lovano into some stirring soprano sax flights. Striking in its way, but not always that hospitable. Not to say music has to offer rewards for the casual listener, who wouldn’t have bought a seat at this gig anyhow, but for me this was at times the kind of state of the art jazz than can leave you feeling more like a spectator than an invited guest.

Happily, the full setlist saw plenty of moments that came across a little more readily: Esperanza Spalding’s superbly controlled bass intro, with more than a hint of Dave Holland, to DeJohnette’s Herbie’s Hand Cocked; Genovese’s flowing piano excursion on the same tune; Spalding again with a wordless vocal on her own Hystaspes Shrugged, which led to a thrilling vocal and soprano sax blend. And, penultimately, Lovano’s other spring-themed title, Birds of Springtimes Gone By – familiar from a Village Vanguard set recorded 20 years ago with Tom Harrell – had him declaiming on tenor with all the swagger and bustle of Sonny Rollins, but more succinctly.

Bustle is also a word hard to resist when Jack DeJohnette is addressing drums and cymbals. The drummer had a relatively restrained evening by his standards until his own closing piece, Ahmad the Terrible, saw him unleashed, driving strong solos from everyone else. Genovese, the Argentinian best known for his recent appearances in Spalding’s own band, dealt capably with a second piece inspired by a jazz piano giant, though his own style is probably more sympathetic to Hancock than Jamal. Lovano left behind the attractively bleary tone he employs on slower tunes for the sharper attack he favours up tempo, and everyone romped home like runners cruising for the tape.

That rousing finish brought applause from the capacity audience enough for several bows, but not an encore. The sense was that no-one felt short-changed. An hour and a half of information flow at this rate left some processing to do.


  1. Did anyone else find the sound fairly dismal? For me the drums and sax and drums were overpowering, the bass was very boomy and lacking in definition, and the low and mid end of the piano got swallowed up. The net effect was that it was almost impossible to pick up a lot of the harmonic content, and that's a real death knell when the repertoire is so relentlessly abstract and out there (I wish they had included a few more straightforward numbers for balance). I was in row E but friends sitting further back next to the sound desk had the same complaint. So all in all it was a frustrating and disappointing gig for me, even though I'm a huge fan of these giants of the jazz world.

  2. There's a similar comment about the sound under John Fordham's review (from someone who didn't like the music either)
    Must have been patchy, I guess. I've been to more than my share of jazz concerts with terrible sound - though rarely at the Barbican. In Row Q this one sounded fine...

    1. The Guardian comment made me facepalm hard

  3. Started with exceptionally poor sound mixing; drums overwhelming, saxophone tinny and piano hard to hear. The effect: 4 musicians playing in 4 different barns and never coalescing. After half an hour or so, mixing was better and much better toward the end. Sound mixers seem to stray into jazz from the rock world and don't comprehend the idiom

  4. I was disappointed too. Interesting to hear Leo and his Blues form Ethiopia was a highlight. overall fairly pedestrian, yet too short. The Birmingham gig sounded more interesting and they got an encore