Every now and then, the jazz department brings in lesser-known performers for both Lawrentians and the public to experience outside of the Jazz Series. On Tuesday, April 25, the Robin Verheyen Quartet graced the Nathan Marsh Pusey room in the Warch Campus Center. While the audience was small, those there listened intently, enjoying the eclectic compositions and transcendent improvisations.
The set was mostly made up of tunes from Verheyen’s 2015 album, “A Look Beyond (Cap-Vert Illuminations),” which featured the same quartet that would perform with him at Lawrence. Joining the Belgian saxophonist were Russ Johnson on trumpet—who I had the pleasure of seeing over break and who originally told me about this concert after learning that I am a student at Lawrence—Drew Gress on bass and Jeff Davis on drums. The album is largely inspired by Verheyen’s time in Senegal; this brief but informative context peppered throughout made it even easier to take in the unique all-original program.
The compositions and arrangements were without a doubt one of the strongest aspects of the concert. As stated in the album liner notes, traditional Senegalese music requires at least three drummers, but since Verheyen did not have that, he utilized the two horns in a more rhythmic fashion, often grounding the composed parts with bouncy basslines. Although they often emphasized rhythm, the horns also had many moments of unexpected harmony, producing a grit and force that was polished and intentional as well. This approach to composition was a stunning middle ground between West African, hard bop and other types of music, blending into a distinct compositional voice Verheyen used articulately—both appreciating the culture but also innovating with its complex grooves. The energy and liveliness of each tune would have been lost without the sensitive blend of saxophone and trumpet. Never before had I witnessed two melodic instruments so effortlessly take hold of each other’s sound and make it their own, combining two voices into one cascading with multi-dimensional tone and timbre. This was especially impressive in the frequently angular melodic lines they had together, as well as in the collective improvised sections where they busily swept across their instruments without stepping on each other’s toes. Their emphasis on blend also was prevalent in the liminal spaces between solos, as they usually overlapped each other riffing not only off of their own ideas, but also off of those preceding them.
This tight melodic element was built atop the driving density of bass and drums. With occasionally disjunct lines from Gress and atypical rhythmic drumming from Davis—at points using his hands instead of sticks, but always on the set—the two rhythm section members held down multi-layered ostinatos that both melded with and pushed against the horns. No matter how unexpected or labyrinthine each component was, the quartet flowed together collectively. There was a healthy tension, but not without an overarching breezy, joyous feeling.
Throughout the concert, I relished in the constant energy the quartet omitted but—as a trumpet player myself—was largely drawn to Johnson’s sound. Initially, his clarity and delicate articulation was the defining feature for me, but over time, I became more aware of the subtleties that gave him a voice like none other I have heard. One idiosyncrasy of his was the slight distortion he applied colorfully to various notes. A growl is certainly not uncommon in jazz trumpet, but to do so in such a controlled manner was fascinating, revealing a whole new texture. It was quite apparent that the other three musicians were equally attuned to the subtleties of the music and of their instruments—whatever that meant to them—so that Johnson’s voice fit in perfectly.
After a selection of stimulating, concentrated tunes, the quartet continued with the album and show closer, “Jere Jef,” meaning “thank you” in Wolof, a common language in Senegal. The ebullient piece worked well as a conclusion, encompassing the band’s supremely solid attributes: togetherness and blend, catchy yet cerebral composition and a constant, unified energy no matter who was doing what.
My lesson of the week? Pore over the event calendar and make sure you do not miss any events, even the ones about which you might not know anything.