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That time I saw Esperanza Spalding perform...

February 10, 2020

If you weren’t at Finney Chapel for the Spring Quartet jazz performance on the night of April 17, 2019, you missed out on something really special. It has been nearly a year, and I’m still in awe of what I witnessed at that concert.

Before I go any further, I would like to briefly go into "hipster mode" in saying that I have been a fan of Esperanza Spalding for years. I remember listening to her popular song "I Know You Know" when I was in middle school and I was instantly hooked onto her beautifully melodic jazz music. Many people may remember her for beating Justin Bieber in the 2011 Grammys for "Best New Artist" at a time when Bieber-mania was in full swing. Sheesh, what a time...

Anyways, I managed to keep up with her music over the years, and I was blessed to see her as well as three other phenomenal musicians perform at Oberlin last year.

The concert was a celebration of the thirty-year anniversary of the jazz studies degree here at Oberlin. It was also the final performance of the 2018-19 Artist Recital Series. Artists who had previously performed in this series include the Doric String Quartet, the Cleveland Orchestra, The Romeros, Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes, and many other critically acclaimed musicians.

The quartet consists of four ridiculously talented musicians who performed individual works from each of the group’s members.

This was definitely an event of high interest here in Oberlin. Finney Chapel was packed for the event; in fact, it was entirely sold out! The quartet kept the sellout crowd rocking all night with their beautiful tunes.

The first of these musicians is Grammy-winning artist Esperanza Spalding. To get a better sense of the type of artist she is, check out what some of her program description says: 

“Esperanza Spalding is typically referred to as a bassist, vocalist, and composer. However, like most organisms growing in response to their environment, Spalding is emerging into something she does not yet understand and cannot clarify through reference or language.”

In other words, Esperanza Spalding would fit right in here at Oberlin. Make no mistake, though, she is one of the most talented bassists and jazz artists in the world. I feel confident in saying this without hesitation, especially after that performance.

Spalding had the honor to perform on an Italian bass that was used by legendary jazz bassist Milt Hilton, a part of the Conservatory’s Special Collections.

Spalding played bass and performed vocals for the quartet, and listening to her perform was an otherworldly experience. She played a standing bass differently than I had ever heard before. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The bass lines she came up with were so… fire. I can’t think of any other way to describe the combination of notes she was playing. The best part about it was the fact that she made it look so effortless. She was smiling and vibing to the beautiful music the quartet was creating. It seemed as though she belonged on that stage to shine brilliantly.

The same can be said for the other three members of the quartet.

The drummer, Jack DeJohnette, is another Grammy-winner who is viewed as one of the best drummers in the history of jazz. Watching him maintaining and switching rhythms was something to absolutely marvel at. The versatility of the rhythms was equally impressive. Each song the quartet performed had a different vibe to it, and he commanded and controlled the pace of every song he was involved in. And his drum solos? Don’t even get me started. They were some of the best drum solos I have ever seen in my life. To make matters even more impressive, the man is seventy-five years old and looks like he hasn’t lost a step in the slightest.

Grammy-winning producer, composer, and saxophonist Joe Lovano also performed marvelously as expected.

Listening to his melodies only added to the already beautiful music that was being produced. Every time he added his input to the songs, the songs sounded even better. His timing would be perfect every time too. Whenever I thought, “Hmm… some saxophone would be perfect for this part of song,” he would start playing, and it was magical every single time. Lovano was also the most vocal out of the entire group in terms of interacting with the crowd. His vibe was very relaxed, just as the rest of the quartet. He had a certain level of confidence that was quite admirable to see. I looked at his facial expressions as he played, and I could just tell that he was loving the experience. The same can be said about the other members of the group as well.

And last but certainly not least, the very gifted Leo Genovese played on the keys.

Genovese studied with Joe Lovano at the Berkeley College of Music, which is where Esperanza Spalding attended school as well. (*Cough* see where making connections can get you? *cough*) Since then, he became a member of Spalding’s recording and touring ensemble, and wow, he was phenomenal. Genovese took complete control of the piano when it was his time to shine for solos, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. He may not have any Grammys under his belt (yet), but don’t sleep! He was a force to be reckoned with this past Wednesday. The beautiful melodies he came up with are still stuck in my head!

This was simply one of the best musical performances I have ever attended.

Watching these four incredible musicians go back and forth with beautiful jazz melodies and harmonies was an experience that I will be telling my future grandchildren about. If you were at this performance, I’m sure you would agree with me on that. I hope the quartet is able to return to Oberlin someday. If not, I’m completely satisfied with experiencing such a fantastic concert just once. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it was an honor to be in attendance for it.

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