Last night guitarist Peter Sprague performed at the Athenaeum Studio in a two guitar format featuring Howard Alden on 7 string guitar. On bass and drums, respectively, were staunch allies Bob Magnusson and Jim Plank. The set started with the Harold Arlen tune, "My Shining Hour" from the movie "The Sky's the Limit." In my opinion tune selection is half the battle, and Peter did a magnificent job in selecting the tunes that were played this evening. You can't beat The Great American Songbook especially when augmented with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and the selection of tunes this night was wonderful and covered all the bases. For this alone the concert was first rate, top notch, 5 stars. But then the playing was pretty spectacular too!
Howard Alden was sitting in for Mundell Lowe, the great guitarist, who couldn't make it on account of illness. Mundell was one of the Mississppi contingent of be-boppers who along with Mose Allison ("I'm sitting down here on Parchmon Farm") migrated to New York City and absorbed the lessons of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the aftermath of WW II. Mundell was musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival for many years, a fact that the concert notes failed to mention. He was one of the first to have an integrated group, a fact worthy of note for a southern musician. As a friend of Mundell's, I wish him a speedy recovery.
What a joy it was to be introduced to the music of Howard Alden! The two guitarists were a contrast, but complemented each other well. Howard has a more traditional, focused jazz oriented sound than does Peter maybe as a result of moving to New York City as a young man, while Peter embodies and encapsulates the southern California, Del Mar surf's up sound with hints of Eastern mysticism, incense and candles. His sound is spacier and less hard edge. He's not totally in LaLa land, however, as he can dig in if he wants to. So it was a contrast between the Big Apple sound and the Del Mar surf sound. Both are equally valid. Peter loves the Spanish sounds - the sambas, flamencos and bossa novas and that was reflected in the 3 Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes - Desafinado, Wave and Felicidad. Another remarkable composer and wise tune selections.
Howard has studied with 7 string guitarist George Van Eps, and his solo turn demonstrated how the low A string can give the guitar a fuller lower register. Both guitarists were relaxed and enjoying themselves and each other's playing. Some of the other great tunes and composers featured were "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," by Cole Porter, "Prelude to a Kiss," by Duke Ellington, "It Could Happen to You," by Jimmy Van Heusen, "You Don't Know What Love Is," by Don Raye and "It's You or No One," by Jules Styne. The latter two aren't as well known as the others, but what wonderful music! Bassist Bob Magnusson played the melody arco on "You Don't Know..." His playing is simply superb. One of the few bassists that can carry the melody, and also play Charlie Parker inspired solos, the group interaction among the three string players was the highlight of the evening. The group was at it's best when the bass was an equal partner with the guitars which tended to be more the case as the evening progressed.
Drummer Jim Plank, unfortunately, played a more Connie Kaye-ish role as strict timekeeper. He's been a fixture on the jazz and symphony scene for many years. Although he had some good solo spots, he was not fully integrated into the group sound. The essence of unobtrusiveness, I think Jim needs to be more aggressive and use the sticks more. Somehow the brushes didn't get the job done. He could have been more interactive without overpowering the room. And although I'm no expert on drum kits, the sound of his set-up didn't really turn me on. If I closed my eyes and just listened to the drums, it sounded like a businessman's bounce. Maybe that's what playing with the symphony too long does to you. I don't know.
It made my evening when they played Charlie Parker's "Bloomdido," with a remarkable introduction. In general, great interplay between the guitarists throughout. They had a great groove on "You'd Be So Nice..." and a great sound on "You Don't Know...," the high points of the concert for me. All in all one of the best nights out for music in a long time. I can't stress enough how much I appreciated the tune selection. Great artists know this is half the battle. Mercifully, there were no originals, not that Peter isn't a good composer which he is, but when you are dealing with the likes of Ellington, Jobim, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Charlie Parker and Jimmy Van Heusen, it's pretty hard to come up with a topper!