Showtime: Masters of Jazz Guitar

Three of jazz's best guitarists dazzled at the Embarcadero

The San Diego Symphony, with the inestimable help of master curator Gilbert Castellanos, has been swinging up a storm with the outdoor concert series, Bayside Summer Nights. Last Thursday’s concert, titled Jazz Guitar Masters, featured three of the world’s most impressive six-stringers, including our own Peter Sprague.

Russell Malone served as the headliner, while Anthony Wilson and Sprague each split a set with the excellent “house” rhythm section of Detroit bassist Rodney Whitaker and Los Angeles drummer Willie Jones III -- all after a wild opening gambit that had all five players grooving on Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song.”

Sprague began his set with an original blues, “Can’t Make Much Sense out of You,” enacting beautifully choreographed digital wizardry alongside a chromatic sense of sequencing only slightly less inventive than Thomas Edison -- but infinitely more swinging. Whitaker and Jones were always hand in glove, but it was Sprague’s solo cadenza at the end that took my breath away.

Next up was a distillation of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic, “A Felicidade.” It was a piece that showcased Sprague’s mastery of the Bossa Nova as he created incrementally dazzling structures that crested just short of a climax. “Calling Me Home” served as Sprague’s benediction, and watching his fingers dance on the huge screen backdrop was the equivalent of the ultimate masterclass in soulful finger ballet.

Following that was Los Angeles guitar man Anthony Wilson, who strode onto the stage holding a custom hollowbody Monteleone and a white Fender Telecaster, the latter of which he plugged in first for a drop-dead gorgeous reading of an original titled “The Geranium.” He was adept at balancing sweet Ed Bickert type voice-leading with slurred chords and short single note outbursts into a unified whole.

I had heard that Wilson was moving into a more singer/songwriter mode, so when he pulled the microphone closer to introduce “While We Slept,” I wasn’t surprised to hear him begin to sing while he played. It sort of reminded me of a merger between Elvis Costello and Bill Frisell, as Whitaker and Jones mulled in quiet background support.

Wilson busted out his archtop for “I Saw It Through the Skylight,” performed in a jaunty “two” feel before breaking into a slinky, virtuosic episode that leaned heavily on the loose-limbed power of Jones, who is one of the premier mainstream drummers working today.

The final set of the evening belonged to Russell Malone, the Georgia-born, New Jersey-based veteran of bands led by Jimmy Smith and Sonny Rollins. The self-taught guitarist has an obvious affinity for Wes Montgomery and George Benson, and he seemed like the most natural fit for the rhythm section of Whitaker and Jones. He came out swinging on “Honey Bone,” which was full of languid bluesology and fat tone.

Most impressive to me was his mesmerizing chord-melody rendition of “Haunted Heart,” which combined open- and closed-string voicings at an achingly slow pace, reminding me of masters like Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow and Lenny Breau -- especially in the “harp-harmonic” cadenza with which he closed.

Also impressive was the Sonny Rollins cousin to “St. Thomas” -- another Afro-Caribbean groove by the name of “Nice Lady” -- upon which Jones came off as remarkably inventive.

All three guitarists came out loaded for bear on a swing-fest version of the Jimmy Van Heusen classic, “It Could Happen to You,” playing off of each other and the rhythm section until they were all soloing at once, ratcheting the sense of ecstasy even higher.

It was a very impressive evening.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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