Guitarist Peter Sprague is a musician I’ve been listening to since my undergraduate days at UCSD. Sprague caught my ear because, though a young man, he found his inspiration in the old school jazz and his playing revealed the influence of fine, older guitarists like Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, and Kenny Burrell. Sprague (who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award this month by the San Diego Music Foundation) is his own person on the guitar, being a fleet fingered, vibrant stylist. This was a time when much of what was called jazz was, in fact, directionless riffing over static rhythms. Peter Sprague’s music, to cite a classic line, was the sound of surprise.
Dream Walkin’, his most recent release with vocalist and percussionist Leonard Patton, brings an intriguing variety of influences .A revelation is just how fine a vocalist Leonard Patton is. He has a rich voice, soulful with clear sense of dynamics. A jazzed-up take on the Beatles pop hit “Can’t Find Me Love” showcases him charging the lyrics with a trumpet player’s spirit, popping at the high notes and revealing a wonderful singing unison lines with Sprague’s agile chord work. Patton, as well, is an adept and responsive percussionist, preferring a minimal set up, in perfect sync with Sprague through the gorgeously modulated melodies and keenly swift improvisations.
The album has a diverse selection of songs that might suggest that the album would become too diffuse and seem likewise directionless in intent, but Sprague and Patton achieve a tight yet flexible sound, allowing music to flow without harsh contrasts. Sprague performs a heart breaking version of the classic “Shenandoah,” his guitar, reverberating and chiming on the aching build of tension and release, and Patton follows with a chorus that makes the song ache even more with the longing for missed people, places, and things. This segues, unexpectedly, with a galloping version of James Taylor’s song “Your Smiling Face,” the perfect resolution to the yearning of the song before it. Patton’s voice perks up, Sprague’s guitar picks up the tempo, and what seemed like a sad moment of reflection becomes joyful.
Dream Walkin’ is joyful in total. The arrangements are tight but not constricted, loose in the sense of musicians who know the structure, the subtle tones, and the unexpected detours of song and are able to anticipate each other’s next move. Also remarkable is the full sound the two create; one admires Sprague not just for his speed and technique, but also for the dexterity of his finger picking and the finesse he allows when he uses a pick. And you come to appreciate, with each listen, the sure, discreet work Patton brings to the percussion tasks.