Last Thursday evening, jazz pianist Miro Sprague treated students and guests of the College to a performance in the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall of the Bernhard Music Center. Sprague played an eclectic and spontaneous mixture of songs, often departing from the traditional realm of jazz piano and making efforts to implement pieces with personal meaning.
It is no coincidence that Sprague should end up playing here in the Berkshires. Though he currently studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA, Sprague is a native of western Massachusetts. In fact, his father grew up in Williamstown and his grandparents still reside locally. The Monk Institute’s current class includes only seven students, known as Thelonious Monk Fellows, who form an ensemble of musicians.
One of the more unusual aspects of the evening was the complete lack of a program. In fact, even Sprague did not choose his next piece until moments before beginning to perform it. For this reason, Sprague would only announce song titles and composers of the pieces he performed once he had completely finished playing them. Even then, Sprague often preferred to embellish and lengthen elements of previously composed songs, and many of the pieces were improvised and thus did not have titles or composers.
The first song of the evening, as the artist only later informed the audience, was completely improvised by Sprague. Though difficult to discern in the moment, Sprague’s revelation of his unconventional performance strategy did not come as a surprise. The first piece was long and winding, stretching across many different tempos and rhythms. Sprague did not engage with the audience as he played, but rather stayed intently focused on the instrument in front of him. His body rocked as he played, feeling the song as a creation of his own, rather than mimicking the motion of a previously memorized piece. His exceptionally light touch on the keys was a sign of transience, even hesitance. According to Sprague, he “sees no separation between composed and improvised music during a solo concert.”
Though his talent as a musician was exceptional, his performance techniques could be improved. His failure to engage with the audience was the weakest point of the show as a whole. Even when explaining a piece he had just played, Sprague’s speech was awkward, quiet and stilted, often leaving the audience with unanswered questions that put his musical knowledge in question. Of course, Sprague is still a student, so it makes sense that these skills would not be fully developed at this point in his stage career.
After his second song, entitled “Dolphin Dance,” composed by Herbie Hancock, Sprague dedicated the concert to his mentor and friend Wayne Shorter. Both Shorter and Hancock currently serve as professors at the Monk Institute. “Dolphin Dance,” as the name might suggest, added an element of fun to the performance, with a significantly quicker speed and a higher, more joyful range of notes.
Sprague’s confidence seemed to grow throughout the concert, with the selection of his pieces becoming ever more bold as the show progressed. The second piece, which he played after a short intermission, was incredibly layered and complex, and with good reason the piece was composed collaboratively between the seven fellows at the Monk Institute, who each worked separately, then brought their ideas together. Although he admitted to being skeptical at first, in the words of Sprague, “it all just magically coalesced into a song.”
The very last piece of the concert truly gave Sprague the opportunity to shine. It was totally improvised and Sprague did not give himself a time limit. As he began to play, he joked, “I’m just going to go, and whenever I’m done, I’ll be done.” He was not joking: Even as the audience began to applaud at a potential breaking point, Sprague just kept playing. This last piece was the only one where he truly let himself be taken by his own music, moving his shoulders to the beat, even softly humming, scatting and singing the notes as he played them. In his own words, he was “coasting” through the music.
Sprague’s performance was indicative of a very talented musician, whose future experiences as a performer both here at the College and in his next large performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, will only serve to improve his skills.