"We’re an improv comedy troupe that plays jazz." That’s how saxophonist Kelly Roberge said the audience should understand The Quartet of Happiness. The group, of which he is a member, plays a show which is half accomplished jazz instrumentalism, half humorous stick-poking of the American-born style.
While some might have been expecting a repetition of the jazz canon, there would be no "Summertime" or "Parker’s Mood" for the audience. The group treated around 150 people in the Sheldon Hall Ballroom Wednesday night to a blend of interactive and postmodern ditties that invited audience participation. For example, in the performance, "Radio," the music duplicates the action of scanning through a radio spectrum, settling on snippets of sound throughout the journey. The Quartet uses it as an opportunity to frolic irreverently through a list of commonly-held radio stereotypes. Screamo music is excessive; Classical stations are boring and NPR is too slow. Entertained, the song depends on the audience’s familiarity with drive-time FM, and then holds a fun-house mirror up to its genres to suggest their absurdity.
That ironic meta-music is a signature of Quartet of Happiness, and continues in "Music History." The quartet’s existential question is, ‘If it’s going to survive, how should jazz engage the Internet generation?’ The answer: eschew classics, dial up personality, break the fourth wall and play to our short attention span.
Jazz is a really small part of the popular music scene, Roberge said.
"It’s like .0001 percent," he said, regretting the decline of his art. "This music was born here; I shouldn’t have to go to Europe to hear it."
One performance requires a volunteer to divulge their phone number on stage, so three quartet members can turn individual digits into a coded set of notes, requiring the fourth, who is unfamiliar with the digits, to decode the notes back into a phone number. To test his metal, the fourth calls the number from the stage.
And suddenly, one understands that it is no longer about the music. It’s a show, an honest to goodness theatre piece. A game, a three-ringed-circus maybe, but certainly not a chamber music show. All the old tropes about how we are supposed to experience jazz have gone out the window. Here, the tone of two notes is the difference between victory, and an awkward wrong-number conversation. What we are observing is not really the notes and their variation. During the performance, the audience tracks something more ephemeral—the gear turning inside the guessing member’s head. Then the audience itself is put on the hot seat, being asked to decode a quartet member’s number using the same system. Even the title is tongue-in-cheek: "Can You Hear Me Now?"
Yet, sometimes the focus on jazz education can feel tedious, or performances can drag on with theatricality. The group swings on a continuum where one extreme is something tacky one might see a high school band attempt, and the other is genuine playfulness among virtuosos.
The show was part of the Ke-Nekt chamber music series, and was sponsored by faculty member Eric Schmitz, who teaches music history. Schmitz took the stage throughout the night to collaborate with the band; once, in a rhythm matching game that he only narrowly lost. The Quartet of Happiness is composed of Roberge and Rick Stone on saxophone, Sean Farias on bass and Austin McMahon playing drums.