Quinn Sternberg

Conference of the Bugs: Quinn Sternberg’s ‘One Mind’ concept comes to life on “Cicada Songs”

Behold that wonder of nature, the periodical cicadas. Millions of insects that inexplicably all agree to appear at the same time after 17 years underground, somehow communicating that it’s time to see the sunlight for the first time in their lives. With one mind, they climb out of the ground, shed their skins, and start… singing. As if they’re one giant conductor-less choral ensemble, they start at first light with waves of sounds following the rays of the sun, simultaneously rising, falling, adjusting pitches, creating overtones, until fading out together towards dusk. Then after a several week long concert, they exit stage left for a well-deserved 17 year set break.

Duke Ellington famously referred to “cicadas in the tropical night” to illustrate that music is all around us, and cicadas continue to influence what we conceive of as music. New Orleans based bassist Quinn Sternberg embraces this ‘one mind’ concept with his flowing, ultra-melodic compositions on “Cicada Songs” (drops 3/4/22 on Mind Beach Records in digital and vinyl formats) accompanied by musicians who seem to think and act in accordance with unspoken guidelines, playing together with the ease of communication found in that natural insect phenomenon.

Quinn grew up in Bloomington IN, a college town well within the touring radius of all kinds of New Orleans based bands- Trombone Shorty played some of his first road gigs in Bloomington bars back in the late 2000s. Among the many NOLA ensembles to make the drive north was the legendary Astral Project, who appeared in Bloomington several times throughout their career- and Astral Project’s energetic performances became a huge influence on young Quinn. At the same time, the NOLA jazz concept of swing + grooveability + danceability made its mark on his compositional method.

Of course Midwestern jazz has its own sound, with native Midwestern jazz musicians like Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden exploring the folk influenced ‘open skies’ feelings that driving across the vast expanses of fields and forests can evoke. (Metheny’s “Midwestern Night’s Dream” from his 1976 album Bright Size Life comes to mind.) In Sternberg’s music as in real life, the sounds of New Orleans and the sounds of the Midwest compliment and inform each other.

Back to the cicadas as an ensemble concept. The first single from “Cicada Songs”, the energetic “Cicada Song” (out Feb 4), is where the insects really show up to the gig. While listening to actual cicadas out in the tropical Louisiana night, Quinn realized they were singing in 7/4. After transcribing the rhythm he heard, Quinn wrote a melody that sounds like cicadas dancing, chirping, and celebrating their brief foray into the world between 17-year snoozes. With a bridge that slips into 5/4, it’s easily the most metrically involved track on the album- rather like those metrically complex insects. While interlocking rhythms between Charlie Ballantine’s guitar and Sam Taylor’s saxophone represent the foreground cicadas, Oscar  Rossignoli’s piano and Quinn’s bass respond with complimentary figures that play the part of background cicadas. The result is much like the natural sounds of the insects, an undulating wave with effortless highs and breathless lows.

It’s the second single, the sublime “June” (out Feb 18), that best illustrates Sternberg’s departure from the traditional soloist vs. band structure of most jazz ensembles. “I just told everyone in the band, like, no one’s the soloist, we’re just playing,” notes the composer. Indeed, it’s hard to hear any one instrument take the fore in “June”. It’s very much a sum of all parts, with Quinn’s bass interjecting melodic fragments under interweaving lines tossed between Sam’s saxophone and Charlie’s guitar, with echoes of all in the bell tones coaxed from the Rhodes piano by Oscar and cleverly underpinned by the dexterous Peter Varnado’s drumming. Named for Quinn’s dog, “June” evokes images of a dog running through a field in a peaceful doggy dream. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure scene where you can pick a musical line to hang with, take in the ensemble sound as a whole, or just lie back and dream yourself. 

After graduating from the prestigious jazz program at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music where he studied with luminaries like the late David Baker, Quinn found himself at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute, where he immersed himself in round-the-clock jamming and composition studies with jazz great Billy Childs. It was there that things started to gel compositionally, and for Quinn, the Midwest and New Orleans started to groove together.

Throw in a few million insects, and you’ve got some striking music.

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