The Peter Sprague String Consort: The Wild Blue

Robert Bush By

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The Peter Sprague String Consort
The Wild Blue
SBE Records

Guitarist/composer Peter Sprague isn't nearly as well known outside serious musician circles as he should be. Maybe his international profile will be raised since he's been touring with vocalist Dianne Reeves. Twenty-three years ago, in 1987, bassist Charlie Haden asked his good friend, guitarist Pat Metheny to join a quartet he was putting together. Metheny was reluctant to move to the West Coast, so he recommended Sprague as an able substitute. Sadly, this group never recorded. For a guitarist to get an endorsement like that from Metheny tells you something about what an undiscovered treasure Sprague is. He hasn't had much down time since that recommendation either—he continues to evolve and experiment in many different projects and groups, and even started his own record label, SBE Records several years ago.

One of his projects is the ensemble known as the Peter Sprague String Consort. It's essentially a septet that marries a string quartet (violinists Bridget Dolkas and Jeanne Skrocki, violist Pam Jacobson and cellist Carter Dewberry), with a jazz trio comprising Sprague, double bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Duncan Moore. The Consort did as many performances as possible all over Southern California to hone the material and prepare for this recording.

Mixing strings with jazz has always been a hit and (mostly) miss proposition. Whenever an orchestra is used, it often sounds like an artificial sweetener—for instance the strings on all those Creed Taylor productions of albums by guitarist Wes Montgomery or pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim in the 1960s. They seem to have taken as much from the music as they added. With string quartets it's often a problem of matching the vastly different sonorities, and generally ends up sounding dangerously close to "elevator music." Thankfully, Sprague came into this project way ahead of any of those traps. He's composed for this ensemble with the idea in mind that the strings were to be placed right up front and active. He avoided the sweetening by spending significant research studying the scores of Bartok and Debussy, as well as two contemporary bandleaders, keyboard player Chick Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin.

The disc begins with the ambitious, episodic title track, "The Wild Blue," (that's what Sprague, an avid surfer, calls the ocean ). The dialogue between the semi-dissonant strings and the jazz trio sounds evocative of Bartok filtered through Corea with Sprague's virtuoso nylon-string guitar doing his own thing entirely. It has three or four distinct moods and works impressively as an opener. "The Beatles" has some definite Beatle-like harmony; mostly it sounds as though someone asked George Martin to compose an instrumental companion piece to "Yesterday" with much hipper changes.

Things really begin to pick up with the third selection, "The Bomb Scare Blues." It's the kind of archetypal blues form that Sprague is known for: harmonically dense with surprising turns and twists along the way. What makes this unique is how involved the string quartet is in the melody—they're all over and under it. This piece is already a killer when double bass master Magnusson takes it up several notches with an incredible melodic gem of a solo. It's often lamented in jazz that "strings can't swing," but in this case at least—with Sprague writing their obbligatos—they do. Next up is an astonishing performance of J.S. Bach's "Prelude Number 9." It is layered inside a swinging trio arrangement so hip you may have to double-check the track list to be sure it was Bach.

Chick Corea's "Day Danse" from his My Spanish Heart, (Columbia, 1976), is next, and it's a great blend of flamenco guitar work coupled with a call and response section with the strings. Somehow, this selection ends sounding more "classical" than the Bach piece. "Karin's Psalm" definitely defies all style boundaries: it starts off with gorgeous string harmony, then Lenny Breau-style guitar "harp-harmonics"—out of nowhere, drummer Duncan Moore lays down some serious back-beat and the piece morphs into a funk, then samba groove. Meanwhile, the strings are weaving in and out of everything. "Karin's Psalm" is one of the album's highlights. "Mudra" features some of Sprague's beautifully rolling arpeggios gently teasing the melody out of the cello, then viola, then the entire string ensemble. It was inspired by the hand gestures that traditional Indian dancers use to tell stories.

Speaking of India, that's also at least the partial inspiration for another one of this album's highlights: "Mahavishnu." The tune starts out with Sprague playing some wicked raga-type licks on top of his over-dubbed tamboura. Then the strings enter with intricate, dissonant lines that are highly evocative of McLaughlin's orchestrations on Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975) and Apocalypse (Columbia 1974). It's an amazing approximation without ever sounding like an imitation. It's more of an affectionate nod to some of McLaughlin's most fertile periods of creativity. The album finale is "Isfahan," (Chick Corea, not Billy Strayhorn), and it's a brief, but furious closer. Sprague has an intimate connection to the music of Corea: he's the official transcriber of six of his albums, about which Corea himself said: "I don't know anyone I would trust more to correctly transcribe my improvisations."

The Wild Blue is a beautifully written, performed and engineered disc. It was recorded at SpragueLand Studios, the Encinitas, California studio that Sprague has operated for several years now. This is high fidelity material all the way. If you want to hear some truly innovative modern music—with unique instrumentation, excellent soloists and great songwriting—grab a listen.

Tracks: The Wild Blue; The Beatles; The Bomb Scare Blues; Prelude Number 9; Day Danse; Karin's Psalm; Mudra; The Duke; Mahavisnu; Isfahan.

Personnel: Peter Sprague: guitars, tamboura (9); Bridget Dolkas: violin; Jeanne Skolki: violin; Pam Jacobson: viola; Carter Dewberry: cello; Bob Magnusson: double bass; Duncan Moore: drums; Ron Wagner: tablas (9).

Personnel: Peter Sprague: guitars, tamboura (9); Bridget Dolkas: violin; Jeanne Skolki: violin; Pam Jacobson: viola; Carter Dewberry: cello; Bob Magnusson: double bass; Duncan Moore: drums; Ron Wagner: tablas (9).

Year Released: 2010 | Style: Beyond Jazz

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