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The all-star San Diego lineup known as Road Work Ahead recently reunited and landed in Pacific Beach on the last stop of a 9 date tour. Comprised of NYC pianist Bill Mays and SD bassist Bob Magnusson, guitarist Peter Sprague and drummer Jim Plank, Road Work Ahead first performed as a unit in 1978.

Mays left our fair city many years ago and has established a thriving career back East, where he is a constantly in demand mainstream jazz pianist.

The concert was held in the lavish venue Tango Del Rey, and it was packed solid with super attentive listeners, all drinking in the pristine sound and rare opportunity to hear these four masters in this context.

The only drawback was the lack of an acoustic piano. Mays did the whole gig on an "antique" Fender Rhodes from the '70s, appropriate enough, given the band's history.

Road Work Ahead has always been about expanding standard material into an in-the-moment experience, and in that spirit, they opened with "The Touch Of Your Lips," which found Mays creating a dreamy landscape before the melody emerged in a gentle swing groove.

Magnusson soloed first with a burnished muscularity over the rustling brushes of Plank. Mays divided the form into a series of logical etudes, then Sprague wove his way through the changes with chromatically shifting phrases.

The band then took a long journey on "The Inchworm," with an arrangement by Magnusson, which featured a rarely heard counter-melody. Sprague and Mays teased alternating segments along while the bassist's whole and half-notes growled and moaned underneath.

Sprague's sensual adaptation of the Beatles classic, "And I Love Her," was an instant highlight. After framing the melody in a probing fashion, Sprague proceeded with rococo flourishes and gilded harmony as the tune developed into a samba. Magnusson built his solo out of short, fragile phrases before launching the tune into a more orchestral dynamic with one draw of his bow.

The seldom heard ballad, "There's A Small Hotel," began with Plank's tiny clicks and barely audible brushes, then branched out into a huge cinematic interpretation that concluded in an almost Weather Report groove (Mysterious Traveler-era), that found Mays screaming into the mic!

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I watched the first half of the concert from the balcony, and was struck by the degree of attention from the audience. No talking, restless looking at watches, or extraneous movement. Even the eyes of the wait-staff seemed glued to the stage.

"The Very Thought Of You," opened the second set, and once again, the band expanded the well-known ballad into distinctly virgin territory. There were lots of rhythmic unisons and Mays' solo unwrapped a world of intersecting ideas and layered harmonies. Sprague injected bluesy asides and pulled the band into a tighter groove dimension before they magically returned to the original melodic idea.

Jim Plank's "Samba For Shelly," featured a slinky, Jobim-like melody, and a very strong groove. Sprague and Mays sliced through the changes, and Magnusson guided everything from below.

"A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square" was the absolute show-stopper. Mays began with gauzy chords undulating through his use of the volume knob, (his Rhodes was missing the sustain pedal), achieving remarkable ring-modulation sounds, which encouraged Sprague to fire up his guitar synthesizer. Magnusson played the melody with the bow, then all hell broke loose. Sprague unleashed some fuzz-tone and heavy reverb to juxtapose discordant haikus along the form, before layering "Freedom Jazz Dance," on top.

Mays threw everything into a wild solo that concluded with quotations from Bird's "Moose The Mooch," "The Red Red Robin," and, finally the theme from "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind."

I'm already looking toward the next reunion tour.

Photo by Barbara Wise

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