Matthew Lickona 4 p.m., March 16
Sold Out Crowd Takes in "Dr. Einstein's Spin"
Athenaeum Jazz at the Studio was sold out for the Peter Sprague String Consort gig on Dec. 2. In the audience were other local musical heavyweights like pianist Joshua White and saxophonist Ian Tordella, along with U-T music critic George Varga and a ton of serious music fans.
The occasion was the world-premier of Sprague's new composition, "Dr. Einstein's Spin," which was commissioned by the prestigious Chamber Music America.
The string consort fuses a string quartet with a jazz trio, and the results, as demonstrated on the 2009 release, The Wild Blue, are often stunning examples of creative music functioning at the highest level. Along with Sprague on guitar, the jazz trio includes San Diego bass master Bob Magnusson and the omnipresent drums of Duncan Moore. The string quartet has a new member in cellist Lars Hoefs, along with veterans Bridget Dolkas, Jeanne Skrocki and Pam Jacobson on violins and viola, respectively.
Sprague decided to delay the premier commission until the second set, choosing to spend the first on other material in the consort book.
Opening with "Mundaca," was a wise choice. This piece starts out as an archetypal Sprague tune : a sunny chord-melody driven samba with a winding theme that only got deeper when the strings wrapped around it's contours. Sprague even employed his guitar-synthesizer to add flute sounds to the already rich melodic tapestry. The guitarist is a master at mixing deftly plucked harmonies and dazzling single-note runs, and the string arrangements included wide variations in dynamics, all perfectly executed.
There are few sounds in life more seductive than the ones Magnusson elicits from his bass. His solo was a rich baritone exploration of ideas bathed in his own personal dipped-in-honey timbre. Hoefs continued with a manic turn on cello, mostly concentrated in the upper register, then Moore emerged with a exquisitely phrased series of explosive drum rolls that brought Elvin Jones to mind.
"Bomb Scare Blues" is the kind of tune only Sprague could write. Magnusson and Loefs began the snaking theme in unison, with the guitar and other strings in hot pursuit. Sprague assumed control of the riff, while fresh orchestrations kept appearing out of the ether. Magnusson's solo was a master class in blues connotations, and Moore traded "12s" with the rest of the band. Each member of the string quartet got in one chorus solos on the blues — shattering the long-held notion that "strings can't swing."
A newer piece, "The End of the Internet," took an already creative evening up several notches. It began with lots of spiky, Bartokian harmony, with the focus shifting from one instument to another. Sprague really knows how to write for strings. Throughout the evening, every piece exploited the subtle nuances of each instrument's capabilities, whether it was the delicacy of soft pizzicato or the enigmatic sounds of ponticello bowing, this music was never just jazz with "strings attached". There was another creative turn when Moore soloed on his Wave Drum, a drum synthesizer, very tastefully employed. Sprague evoked the sound of early Weather Report with his own synthesizer work, getting some decidedly world music effects from his electronic rig.
After a brief intermission, the consort returned for the first public performance of "Dr. Einstein's Spin." It was worth the wait. Sprague began the first movement, Molecules, with gentle voice leading until he landed on a modal vamp that brought the strings into glorious orbits around each other. Moore entered with shimmering cymbals over a semi-rock beat, which set the stage for a dazzling series of highly intricate unison string riffing. Again the dynamics played a huge part, with the strings ranging from triple-forte to almost inaudible pizzicato plucking.
The second movement, Rainbows, began as a pensive ballad that reminded me a lot of the Leonard Bernstein piece made popular by Bill Evans, "Some Other Time." Led by the cello, the harmonic and melodic landscape Sprague created was as lush as the rainforest and perhaps the most beautiful theme he has ever written. There were parts of Rainbows that had me understand on a visceral level, the wonder of life, the power of beauty and the intrinsic pull of love. I'm not kidding you, it was so deep, I almost proposed to the woman sitting next to me. Ok, it didn't hurt that she was gorgeous.
Gradually, the scope of Rainbows got wider than the world of human emotions to open into a love for the cosmos itself. I will be waiting for the recorded version of this to materialize...
Finally, the third movement, The Expanse, began with dark and dense harmonies, then Sprague activated open string arpeggios that floated in the air until he and Loefs traded a probing call and response cell that brought in some wickedly virtuosic, and vaguely Celtic melodies which burst from player to player in a intense round of layered ideas.
Suddenly Magnusson surfaced with a fleet fingered solo that reached for the piquant areas of his instrument's upper register, while the four other strings wrapped around each other in dizzying harmonic interplay. After several climaxes, the dynamics drew down to a hush, and "Dr. Einstein's Spin," ended on a whisper, the silence soon to be broken by a tumultuous standing ovation.
As if that weren't enough, Sprague sent the crowd home with a strangely stirring deconstruction of "Oh, Susanna," which began by evoking the soundtrack to every Ken Burns documentary , only to ratchet up to a Vassar Clements meets Chick Corea "hoedown" of sorts. There were liberal quotes from that other grade-school sing-along, "Shenandoah" thrown in for good measure.
This was the kind of concert that burns in your brain forever, if you were lucky enough to have been there.
Photo by Barbara Wise