The Gateshead International Jazz Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary and over those years I’ve enjoyed some remarkable performances from Courtney Pine & The Jazz Warriors, Bill Bruford & Michiel Borstlap, John Dankworth & Cleo Laine, Branford Marsalis, and most recently Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio, among others.
When the initial billing for this year’s event was announced I had no hesitation in booking a couple of tickets for Esperanza Spalding; a prodigious talent (though she rejects the term) who taught herself violin when only five, is a multiple Grammy award winner, and a favourite of the Obamas to perform at The White House.
As so often happens with jazz gigs, there is a fluidity to bookings as performers add guests who happen to be in town, or take the opportunity to play something experimental, so as the months went by between ticket purchase and actual performance things changed. It was no longer Esperanza who was billed but The Spring Quartet; a veritable jazz supergroup comprising Spalding and her pianist Leo Genovese, Jack DeJohnette (at 71 a veteran with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Freddy Hubbard and Keith Jarrett on his CV), and Joe Lovano.
Come the concert they received a standing ovation from much of the audience. But not me. I was disappointed.
That guru of how teams operate, Raymond Meredith Belbin, would say that four or five is the ideal number for a successful team and that they should between them cover 9 specialisms, or failing that have one dominant “shaper” role and the rest be subservient “team workers”. The right combination of personalities is more important than the individual skills of the members, so that a well-balanced group of average individuals can outperform a group of stars where the team make up has been ignored. I think the Spring Quartet should perhaps read his work.
Spalding is renowned for two things; her skilful bass playing (on electric or double bass) and her exquisite, acrobatic yet incredibly accurate vocal ability. The former was drowned out by her colleagues and the latter put to use on only one number where a scat intro was barely enough to showcase the woman who so beautifully recorded Fall In. She stood beatifically behind the instrument that dwarfed her slender frame reminding me of an indulgent mother sipping tea while her three sons throw a tantrum. Three shapers and one team worker perhaps?
It seems I’m not alone in this view; their performance at Lincoln Center was described as “muddy” and I felt the same.
Still the evening wasn’t a complete loss. The venue for the festival is the eternally stunning Sage, always a favourite to photograph. Yesterday she and the environment around her provided the clarity that I missed elsewhere.