Most guitar quartets are highly rehearsed ensembles devoted to a repertoire of intricately arranged material. Seasons is something very different. Balancing searching improvisation with exquisite through-composed passages, the ensemble brings together four brilliant, versatile, and accomplished composers and bandleaders with Anthony Wilson and Larry Koonse from Los Angeles, São Paulo’s Chico Pinheiro, and New York City’s Julian Lage. The group performs Friday at the Jazzschool as part of a California tour, a tricky undertaking for a group with so many divergent musical commitments.
The son of legendary Los Angeles bandleader and composer Gerald Wilson (who’s still active at 94), Anthony Wilson has spent the past dozen years accompanying Diana Krall (and performing and recording with a diverse array of artists when the vocalist is on break, including Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Bobby Hutcherson, Barbra Streisand, Madeleine Peyroux, and Aaron Neville). But before Krall became his primary commitment, Wilson had established himself as a savvy bandleader and inventive composer with a series of acclaimed nonet albums.
He first assembled the guitar quartet in New York City in 2011 to premiere the four-movement suite that gave the group its name, a project documented on the CD and DVD Seasons: Live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Goat Hill Recordings). That first incarnation featured New York guitarist Steve Cardenas, but as the project evolved into a working ensemble, Koonse took over the fourth chair. As a longtime faculty member at Cal Arts, Koonse is often overlooked in discussions about top tier guitarists, but among his peers he’s considered a true master. His experience as a founding member of pianist/composer Billy Childs Grammy-winning Jazz-Chamber Ensemble offered excellent preparation for some of the particular demands of Wilson’s writing.
“Anthony so skilled at creating music that’s interesting on so many levels, melodically, rhythmically, harmonically,” Koonse says. “Music that allows each voice to be prominent, and offers this opportunity to work as a group. The challenge is that we’re dealing with the printed page, really sophisticated, complex music, but also an improvisatory streak running through the material. There’s the mindset of being really detail oriented, and then letting go of the page and letting go of the details.”
Working with the great LA-based São Paulo-raised jazz singer Luciana Souza has provided Koonse with considerable insight into Brazilian traditions, which enter Seasons via Pinheiro. An astounding player and esteemed composer, Pinheiro’s reputation has spread in the US via his collaborations with Wilson, starting with the 2008 album Nova (Goat Hill Recordings). He’s gained a particularly devoted following in the Bay Area, where his compositions have been championed by pianist Marcos Silva at the Jazzschool, and through his work as a teacher at Dennis Broughton’s summer Brazil Camp in Cazadero.
“Chico is a virtuosic guitarist whose technical facility is flawless,” Koonse says. “He’s got a beautiful rhythmic center, with a time sense that’s so buoyant.”
For Bay Area audiences, Lage is probably the best-known member of the quartet. At 25, the Santa Rosa native has been a creative force for more than a decade, the object of wide-eyed wonder for his preternaturally mature work with musicians three and four times his age. He gained national renowned touring and recording with vibraphone veteran Gary Burton, and established his own identity as a leader with a singular chamber jazz quintet featuring cello, tenor sax, hand percussion and acoustic bass. He grew up listening to Wilson’s great nonet recordings, particularly 1998’s Goat Hill Junket (Mama Records).
Rather than breaking down into various duos and trios, the group mostly performs as a quartet, with “a lot of equality. It’s not, you play the bass, and I play lead. We all play all the parts, lead, rhythm, harmonic support,” says Lage, who also performs on Saturday afternoon with pianist Taylor Eigsti and tenor saxophonist (and Berkeley High grad) Dayna Stephens at KCSM’s free Jazz On the Hill festival at the College of San Mateo.
“In addition to the ‘Seasons’ suite, a 20-minute piece, we’ve got a Monk tune, a Joni Mitchell song, and a tune of mine that Anthony arranged in a chorale style,” Lage continues. “In a group like this there are generally two routes, with super specific writing, or a free for all, which can be great or cumbersome and awkward. We’re going for door number three, finding the balance.”
Ashkenaz hosts an annual benefit for the Berkeley High Jazz Program tonight featuring the award-winning BHS Jazz Ensembles (Combo A took first place in the high school combo division at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s prestigious Next Generation Festival last month). The students will be joined some illustrious BHS jazz program alumni such as drummer Josh Jones, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophonist Hitomi Oba, trombonist Sarah Cline (who runs the jazz program), and others.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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