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Spring Quartet sets Massey Hall on fire with wicked improv

Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding.

Elaine Thompson/AP

The Spring Quartet
Massey Hall
Thursday, February 27, 2014

On a blustery February night with the wind chill at 29 below, it wouldn't be hard to get Torontonians to cheer anything that hinted at a life beyond winter. But the rousing applause that greeted the Spring Quartet's jazzy perambulations before a packed house at Massey Hall Feb. 27 had less to do with seasonal warmth than with improvisational fire.

Given that the group featured two genuine giants of jazz, saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Jack DeJohnette, flanked by a pair of young lions – Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding and her long-time collaborator, pianist Leo Genovese – it would be easy to imagine some of the enthusiasm simply reflected the star power on stage. But these four were less interested in easy accolades than in pushing the limits of their considerable abilities.

There were no concessions to the listener, no punches pulled or ideas dumbed down, and certainly no hint of the pop-friendly content that marked Spalding's last album, Radio Music Society (which included Lovano, DeJohnette and Genovese among the players). Instead, the music was questing and abstract, prone to shape-shifting melodies, elastic notions of harmony, and a loose, roiling sense of rhythm.

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Yet for all the demands their music made on the listener, the joy the four took in their improvisation was so manifestly evident that it managed also to be great fun. It was obvious, just watching their faces – DeJohnette's wolfish grin as he goosed the rhythm along; Spalding greeting a saxophone flourish with raised eyebrows and a child's birthday smile; the sly glint of satisfaction Lovano wore at the end of a particularly strong solo.

Some jazz is about the writing, and some is about the groove, but the deepest jazz tends to be about the interplay between musicians, and that's what the Spring Quartet went after. Rather than be bound by the structure of each tune, with a dependable flow of verses and choruses, the compositions were treated more like scaffolding, supportive structures onto which something bigger and more interesting could be built.

Listen closely, and it was clear that the show-opening Spring Day alternated between swung chords and a funky, repeating bass riff. But the playing nudged our attention elsewhere – toward the stuttering accents DeJohnette sprinkled through the pulse, or the key-defying harmonic twists Genovese layered over Spalding's skittering bass line. At times, the improvisation verged on the contrapuntal, with each player a distinctive voice working with or against the others.

It wasn't free jazz by any stretch, but it was tremendously liberating, and left room for each to not only to step outside of their instrument's traditional role, but on occasion to ditch their instrument entirely.

Toward the end of the group's 90-minute set, for instance, DeJohnette introduced a tune with a drum solo full of second-line style flourishes, and the others responded by picking up saxophones. Lovano stayed on tenor, Spalding produced an alto, Genovese grabbed his soprano, and the three had at it, alternating between furious improvisation and a loosely harmonized melodic line. Then, after Spalding and Genovese returned to their rhythm section roles, DeJohnette put down his sticks and assumed a melody role on the melodica (a sort of keyboard harmonica). In all, it was as stunning as it was unexpected.

But that's how jazz is supposed to be. Given that the group hasn't yet issued any recordings, there was no way anyone in the audience knew what to expect. And judging from the sustained applause before the encore – a version of DeJohnette's Otherworldly Dervishes, which found the drummer using a Roland Handsonic percussion module to tap out a tabla solo – the surprise was enjoyed utterly.

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