A quick anecdote is indicative of the level of musicianship that’s displayed on this record. After laying down these tracks we needed the musicians to pose a bit with their instruments so Paul could get some more photos. It was Jack’s idea that they should jam a little a bit while switching instruments. With Jack DeJohnette playing piano, Esperanza Spalding on the drums and Leo Genovese playing bass, they played for 45 minutes without pause. Now it's not unheard of to hear musicians stretch out on a second instrument, or switch with their band members for a lark during sound check, but what was surprising was the level this trio can take it to. Esperanza playing Jack’s licks on the traps and Leo doing his best Esperanza impersonation. Jack on piano is, of course, Jack on piano, a towering artist on both piano and drums (go back and listen to our second record in this season, if you don’t believe me). I guess what I’m saying, is that to be in a room with three musicians playing so effortlessly was a positively electrifying experience. You get the feeling that Leo, Esperanza and Jack can just inhale nitrogen and oxygen and exhale music.
Chacarera Y Mas is a song with music written by Leo to lyrics written by the great Argentinian guitarist Ica Novo. Enough ink has been spilled about what a singular talent Esperanza Spalding is. It seems unfair that one person could have such facility, tone and concept on a beast of an instrument like the upright bass and additionally possess a singing voice of such beauty and power. The effortless way this band slips into the open solo section is indicative of the nature of this session. The empathetic nature of this band is stunning.
Along those lines, the way Leo’s Cosmic Church was recorded is a fascinating study in spontaneity and improvisation. The song is a little diptych of a suite, with the first section being this rather open cosmic, harmonically adventurous piece followed by settling into a B section laying heavy on the Gospel. However, as Leo was just explaining the feel of the second section to Jack and Esperanza they started in on the Gospel section. The groove was immediately so heavy that in the moment they switched the arrangement around and segued to the “Cosmic” part of the tune afterwards. It’s a level of intuition and trust that was a thrill to behold.
The next tune is a sly reference to a phrase in a mixed review of a performance by this trio (featuring Joe Lovano and performing as “The Spring Quartet”) where a critic wrote that Leo “reached backward to play enough purposefully off-key notes to fill a lemon farm.” Hence, Lamento del Limonero, (sorry for the lemonade). This tune starts off with an unsettling harmonic cadence, but turns into a burner in a hurry. Dig what the master DeJohnette has to say as Leo and Esperanza lay out the framework for what’s to come in the opening bars. Nobody, ever, has been able to build a contained storm on the drums the way DeJohnette does. To me this band always knows where it is and where it's going. Even in the midst of abstraction and fragmentation they are breathing and moving together. Dissonance in the service of collective expression. There’s more than one way to serve a lemon.
The finale track of Side A, Baile a lo Divino, opens with Jack DeJohnette on melodica. Listen closely and you can hear him echo some of the themes of Limonero that Leo was playing. The quick interplay between Leo and Jack segues into some beautiful exchanges between Leo and Esperanza with commentary from Jack on the cymbals. This is big-hearted music.
Side B opens with the burner of the record, Diableros. The Tyner-esque melody shifts between two repeating modal refrains. What sets this apart, is both the intensity of the swing and the clarity of the melodic content. Sometimes an improviser can sound too “comfortable” on uptempo tunes. A display of technique devolving into a sangfroid air of predictability. Not this trio. Leo can go in any direction at any time and often chooses a couple of directions at once. All this without losing his cool. Check out DeJohnette’s solo over Esperanza’s vamp before the theme returns… No one in the booth was sitting by the end of this take.
Vidalita is my favorite track on the record, beautiful and strange and melodic. It’s a neat trick to write and perform a song that feels like a simple melody but is totally full of unconventional choices and left turns. There’s a tenderness here that is beautifully conveyed without anything feeling careful or tentative.
The title of Argentinosaurus comes from the gigantic dinosaur named for Leo’s homeland where the first leg bone (the size of a man) was discovered. From the moment Esperanza sets up the vamp you can sense something large making its way over the horizon. Again the band flirts with total abstraction but never tips over the edge. There’s so much meat on the bone here. I love the start stop interactions between DeJohnette and Genovese and the lock step nature of everything Spalding lays down. But mostly it’s the full conception of the tune, building a beginning and a middle and an end, when chaos is just around the corner, that’s so striking and enormous…
In case you’re wondering that’s Mr. DeJohnette making the opening call at the commencement of the final track of the record, Ethiopian Blues. This piano is the same Fazioli that Jack recorded on supplied by our good friends at Klavierhaus. Check out the resonance on that low end as Jack makes the call. I love the way the melodic figure gets spun around over the vamp in the bass.
Often I see a band made up of such superb musicians referred to as a “well oiled machine” or a sports car that’s able to take turns and hug the corners and perform flawlessly. I prefer Leo’s more organic metaphor for something so full of life. And there is such life in this music. Something huge rearing from the pre-historic jungles of South America and poking its head into a studio in New York City and reminding the world that music can speak to us all, anywhere, if we let it.
– Elan Mehler