Peter Sprague :: Bird Raga

Summer is the time for fusion. No, not the heady thought-provoking churning jazz skirmishes with psychedelia of Herbie Hancock’s early Headhunters or Miles’ brooding early 70s offerings. This calls for truly catchy grooves, more funk than conventional jazz, and beats per minute that soar as high as the mercury.  Jaco-era Weather Report fits the bill, as does the seemingly cocaine-fueled filth funk summoned anytime Miroslav Vitous picks up the electric bass. And lest we forget the odysseys of the craft’s perfectionists–Casiopea.

On Bird Raga, guitarist Peter Sprague dives right into this mode. “Namaste” lives up to its name, with breezy summer cruisin’ vibes. The band is tight and challenges one another to dexterous runs that end in synchronous grandiosity, before revving up yet another assault of solos. Sprague immediately makes clear his expertise and refuses to hold back, firing off layers of complexity that ring out crystal clear in a show of perfect fretboard precision. As the tune churns and burns, these solos eventually lose their intensity and the affair evolves into a hypnotic group vamp. The ensemble draws us out of the spell with a vocal-laden refrain before wrapping things up. 

A quick search reveals that Peter Sprague is, in the realm of guitar pedagogy, up there with the likes of Frisell, Fripp, or Abercrombie. Unlike those household names, Sprague has not been canonized in the popular consciousness of jazz or guitar adherents. As the record rolls on, however, we begin to see the interplay of technique and raw talent intertwine and its evident that Sprague knows exactly what he’s doing at every step of the equation. “Easy Living” comes through with late-night tropical mood music. There is certainly a classical lean to Sprague’s approach, but this is not a detractor, as it comes across delicately, much like Brazilian guitar greats Baden Powell or Sivuca. Sprague’s mastery of jazz history becomes more apparent on the title cut. He relies far less on the Raga component, and way into the Bird aspect—not necessarily avian, but more indebted to Charlie Parker. The tune swings, but manages to bring a laid-back funkiness, much in the way that Pat Metheny always managed on those early ECM numbers. 

As the side flips, Sprague expands his definition of fusion and begins a heavier incorporation of the Raga-essence promised on the title. “Mahavishnu” in its homage to John McLaughlin, initiates the side in a spiraling drone. The number is blissfully repetitious, wide-open, and adventurous in the sense that the ensemble explores every nook and cranny of the groove in which they are locked. There are moments where Sprague’s fretboard attack and the delivery of his modal runs almost sound like Tony Rice if he were a bodhi-convert. This subsides and the player comes into his own, dueling with flutist Sam Most. The duets occupy that rarified zone where technical proficiency meets organic mystique without one detracting from the other.

Bird Raga closes on the 20-minute Chick Corea dedication—“Corean Suite”. Here the band drops out and Sprague runs through a straight playthrough of a wandering assemblage of jazz, Spanish-hued classical, and tropical moods on the nylon-stringed guitar. At no point does he lose the listeners attention and although the piece does change directions a bit, it never feels forced or abrupt. Ultimately, it is on this final tune that Sprague unleashes all of his chops and all of his ideas, with the soli treatment allowing him the ultimate freedom to roam. The album twists and turns as a whole; the end point is a surprise given the effuse funk of the opening cut and the sporadic moments of intense groove that make up the first side. And although summer is the time for those intense bursts of fusion, the days come to an end and meditation is the watchword. The unexpected becomes exactly what is needed. | j rooney

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