VIDEO: Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Miro Sprague makes quick stop in Valley, plays concert at Unitarian Society in Northampton

Last modified: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Shutesbury native Miro Sprague has been based on the West Coast since fall 2012, studying at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles. During the two-year program, he’s gotten advice and great stories from Herbie Hancock, watched movies with Wayne Shorter, honed telepathic musicianship with his fellow master-class bandmates, and begun a composition for jazz band and string quartet. For starters.

While back in the Valley on a short but jam-packed break before his final semester of the program, Sprague will play a concert at the Unitarian Society in Northampton Saturday at 7 p.m.

The gig brings together many parts of his musical life, as his band for the evening features musicians from New England (Vermont-based saxophonist Michael Zsoldos), Los Angeles (fellow Monk Institute bandmate Eric Miller on trombone) and New York City, where Sprague attended the Manhattan School of Music (drummer Paul Wiltgen was a fellow student at the time, and Big Apple-based 19-year-old bassist Marty Jaffe is an Ashfield native whom Sprague has known for seven years).

Every two years the Monk Institute accepts between six and eight musicians, who then live together and play music daily, becoming both a tight-knit group of friends and a crack band.

There’s video proof on YouTube, a nearly 90-minute recording of an ensemble concert from June that kicks off with Sprague’s supremely swinging composition “Coasting,” which could be a lost mid-’60s Blue Note classic. It’s got everything — a catchy theme, super-fun Monk-ish syncopated holes in the bridge, a snappy Latin groove. The band has a field day with the rich tune.

Sprague and his bandmates spend a ton of time together. They rehearse every afternoon for a minimum of three hours, play concerts, teach clinics in Los Angeles high schools, and travel — just this year alone, the group has performed in Turkey, Israel and Sweden.

The bulk of the Monk Institute program is based around guest artists coming in for a week at a time, bringing their music and listening to the students’ compositions and coaching them.

“The essence of the thing is the mentorship experience, getting to spend time with these amazing heroes of ours,” Sprague said in an interview earlier this week, reeling off a list of jazz luminaries who’ve shared their passion with the younger musicians: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath, Stefon Harris, Robin Eubanks, Hal Crook and many others.

Some — like trombonist, master improvisation teacher and Berklee professor Crook — might have systematic methods of how to practice. Others, like legends Shorter and Hancock, may not teach in a conventional sense, but offer unique windows into the creating of art.

“[Hancock] would say very small things to me like, ‘You know, you don’t have to play all the notes in the chord,’ ” Sprague said. “I think he felt like I was making things too defined.”

Hancock shared a great story from his days playing with Miles Davis. “I guess for whatever reason, Herbie reached some point when he was very frustrated with his own playing and felt like he was doing the same thing over and over again, and I guess Miles sensed this and leaned over to him and said this cryptic thing, in the Miles voice” — and here, Sprague reduces his own voice to a hoarse whisper — “ ‘Don’t play the butter notes.’ Herbie decided that maybe the ‘butter notes’ were the defining notes of the chord, so he started experimenting playing much more spare kinds of things.”

Both Hancock and Shorter are Buddhists, as is Sprague. “They’re pretty philosophical, and it’s inspiring to be around them. They have very youthful spirit even though they’re both kind of old now,” he said. “Wayne Shorter almost never talks about music in musical terms, he talks in terms of images, or a story, or emotion or intention. He’s a huge movie person, he’s obsessed. We’d just watch movies with him.”

Among the films they saw were 1980’s “The Competition” (starring Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving), about classical piano competition, as well as the 2012 French-Canadian sci-fi film “Upside Down.”

Sprague quickly heads back to the West Coast on Jan. 3, so he’s making the most of his brief Valley time. Right after the concert, he and his live band will record his new album, his first official studio recording since his 2005 trio album, “Opening.”

Sprague is still deciding if he’ll stay on the West Coast once he completes the Monk Institute program in June, or head to New York City. Either way, he said, “My goals have been the same for a long time: have a career as a jazz performer, band leader and sideman, at the highest possible level. All these guest artists that have come in are role models to me, people who have been successful and kept their artistic integrity, but are also making a living and getting to travel. Being part of the Institute, I’ve gotten a lot of good inspiration and examples of how that can be accomplished.”

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.

To learn more about Sprague’s new album, visit www.kapipal.com/mirofundraiser.