Stars Perform at Hal Crook’s Send-Off Concert


From the left: Esperanza Spalding, Hal Crook, Lionel Loueke, and Chris Cheek performing in the first half of Crook’s February 18 retirement concert. Also performing were drummer Antonio Sanchez and pianist Leo Genovese.
Kelly Davidson

After a 30-year teaching career at Berklee, professor Hal Crook celebrated his last semester at the college in an extraordinary way. For a February 18 concert of Crook's original music in the Berklee Performance Center, the educator, composer, and trombonist brought back to campus some of his most illustrious former students. Performing to a packed house for the first set were Antonio Sanchez '97 (drums), Esperanza Spalding '05 (bass and vocals), Chris Cheek '91 (saxophone), Leo Genovese '04 (piano), Lionel Loueke '00 (guitar), and Crook playing his signature “trom-o-tizer” (trombone with effects processing).

Crook generously shared the spotlight throughout, offering each of his virtuosic guests plenty of solo time on his five contemporary jazz compositions. The opener, “Set Me Free” (the title theme of the concert), set the pace with Spalding laying down an insistent odd-meter bass ostinato and singing unison lines with the horns at first before her melody became the top line in three-part harmony with Crook and Cheek. Sanchez steadily churned out the groove, alternating quiet accompaniment with intense sections under the solos as Loueke's guitar added percussive accents and chordal swoops, his sound fattened by an octave harmonizer. “Never Again” and “Nothing to Lose” followed, segueing seamlessly via drum and bass solo passages. Throughout, Cheek's rhythmic and angular improvisations contrasted with Crook's muscular soloing, and Loueke's cascading notes. Spalding served up solid bass underpinning and plaintive vocalizing, while Genovese offered sometimes-pointillistic accompaniment.

Spalding sang the last two songs, “Blue Confessions” and “Domestic Violets,” with lyrics she penned. Genovese plumbed the depths of Crook's dramatic chord changes in his intro and comping on “Blue Confessions.” The romantic ballad was a perfect vehicle for Crook's bop-flavored lines and Spalding's dreamy vocals. Introducing the last song, Spalding explained that “Domestic Violets” was a play on words for the serious theme of the lyrics: domestic violence against women. A loping, piano and bass unison figure preceded Spalding's almost-spoken melody. The set closed to robust applause.

The concert's second half featured Crook's amazing 10-piece R&B band These Eyes, featuring alumni as well as faculty members Alain Mallet and Crook. The group's expert rendering of nine original songs revealed Crook's gift for writing music and lyrics in popular styles. His killer charts for the four-piece horn section effectively showcased the individual members: trumpeter Noah Conrad, and saxophonists Jon Bean and Tucker Antell, both as ensemble players and dazzling soloists. Deborah Pierre '13 applied her agile and soulful voice in a range of settings from the mid-tempo R&B bump of “Behind These Eyes” to the rollicking 12/8 groove of “I Remember” to the reggae beat of “Just Enough.” Keyboardist Jiri Nedoma '10 found the right vibe in his solo on the ballad “Winds of Change.” The rhythm section of (drummer) Patrick Simard '13, (bassist) Wesley Wirth, and (keyboardist) Santiago Bosch '15 were in lockstep, providing the perfect feel for each song. Crook publicly thanked the band for “making my songs sound better than they really are.”

In between sets, a lighthearted Crook stood at the podium and played “For He's a Jolly Good Fellow” on a kazoo before offering a mix of tongue-in-cheek humor and poignant thoughts about his three decades at Berklee. “In 1971, Duke Ellington—my hero of heroes—handed me my degree and I stood there awestruck until he spoke those inimitable words of wisdom that I've tried to live my life by ever since,” Crook recalled. “He looked me right in the eye and said, 'Please, keep moving.' So I moved, and moved, and moved. Years later I ended up back here.”

Referring to his musical guests in the first set, Crook said, “Each of them is so amazing, so successful, so famous. I knew them in their musical infancy, before the Grammy Awards, performances at the White House, the movie soundtracks, world tours with Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie [Hancock], and in the cases of Chris and Leo, the jobs as night watchmen at Walmart. If I knew they were going to be so amazing, successful, and famous, I would have given them better grades. Back then I thought of them as the kids I never had—and never wanted. I kid them a lot, but I love these guys—some more than others.”

Concluding, Crook told the crowd, “I hope to see you all back here in 30 years for the reunion concert,” before he exited the stage reprising his kazoo performance.