For more than 30 years, guitarist/composer Peter Sprague has represented one of the true joys of living in San Diego, so learning that he would be appearing at San Diego City College for the June 24 edition of KSDS’s “Jazz Live” show with a new vocal-centric ensemble playing music from his brand-new recording, "Ocean in Your Eyes," made the trip downtown seem like a joyous necessity.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The new disc (and the concert itself) relied on Sprague’s sterling rhythm section of bassist Gunnar Biggs and drummer Duncan Moore, with a four-piece vocal ensemble (the True North Singers) featuring Kevyn Lettau, Lisa Hightower, Matt Falker and Leonard Patton performing intricate, close-knit harmonies that infused each line with lush orchestral implications.
They came out swinging with "Can’t Make Much Sense out of You," the foursome orbiting tight lines that swirled like a much-hipper Manhattan Transfer. Each vocalist tore into a scat chorus, with Falker edging out the others through a sly choice of a one-note trill.
When it came down to Sprague, the delicate choreography of four fingers dancing along the fretboard was absolutely mesmerizing. Lettau got a solo feature with "Giving It Up," highlighting her lithe and limber pipes and the band’s acuity with the samba.
Patton dominated "Chanting With Charles," which also featured a slinky bass solo from Biggs over the whispered brushwork of Moore and an amazing descending chromatic arpeggio from the guitarist.
Sprague’s arrangement of the Blind Faith classic "Can’t Find My Way Home," soared on the strength of masterful fingerstyle voicings and soulful lyric readings from each vocalist, and Hightower’s unique timbre lit up "The Big Phone Bill Blue" with a smoky nuance. Patton’s gift for free-associative improvising was green-lit for "The Big Easy Chair," and he ran with it, creating wild synthesizer-like textures over the lilting reggae groove of guitar, bass and drums.
Speaking of drums, throughout the evening, Moore sparkled with expert, vivacious propulsion. Each stroke and fill were essays in taste, and his short solos were percussion master classes in themselves.
"Seattle Stomp," crammed it all into a ubiquitous whole: four scat solos, a long bebop unison, an epic drum solo and an out-chorus that referenced Weather Report’s "Black Market" and Stevie Wonder’s "I Wish." Patton and Sprague closed with the soulful, elegiac anthem, "Calling Me Home," a tune capable of stirring multiple emotions.
Long live Peter Sprague.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.