Column: Peter Sprague and Friends Play Free Holiday Concert

The questions come in: Are you doing your free afternoon concert on Christmas Eve this year?

Nationally renowned jazz guitarist Peter Sprague is delighted to answer, “You bet.”

He and a group of his musically talented friends and relatives are doing just that at the outdoor amphitheater L’Auberge Del Mar on 15th Street and Camino Del Mar.

“It’s our gift to the community,” says Sprague. “The cast of characters changes every year, depending on who is available, but they’ve made a commitment to do so.”

The informal live broadcast was silenced last year by strict pandemic rules.

In the past 43 years, the concert had only been canceled once, this time due to stormy weather. This happened early in the program and no last-minute indoor shelter was available, Sprague recalls.

Half a dozen times since, they have been forced at the last minute to move indoors to the Encinitas community center or a local Encinitas church. If rain is forecast, they now make sure that an evacuation location is ready. Updates are posted on Sprague’s website.

Sprague, also a composer and arranger, has recorded or toured with jazz greats such as Al Jarreau, Chick Corea, Sérgio Mendes, Dianne Reeves and Sonny Rollins, in addition to making several of his own albums.

Guitarist Peter Sprague has designed a two neck guitar with nylon and steel strings that he will play on December 24 in Del Mar.

(Courtesy of Peter Sprague)

His holiday concert tradition began in 1978 with him, his brother Tripp Sprague and three jazz friends from San Dieguito High School outside the now defunct Song Gallery & Earth Song Bookstore. The group, called the Dance of the Universe Orchestra, often played on the sidewalk to get tips.

The grassy amphitheater site where the concert is now held opened across the street in 2001.

Not only will “Peter Sprague Plays the Holidays” be relaunched this year, it will have a double whammy. A live (ish) streaming performance by the same artists and music lineup will take place on December 21 at 7:00 p.m. at Sprague’s music studio, SpragueLand, in Encinitas.

He describes these two hours YouTube offer as attracting a different audience – an appealing audience for the elderly, followers from outside the region, and fans from as far away as Europe and Japan.

SpragueLand has been refined into the technologically ideal setting for virtual concerts. As soon as the pandemic hit, Sprague focused on honing his skills as a sound engineer.

Some of the county’s top players will perform season favorites mixed with jazz and pop classics. Line-up includes Sprague’s saxophonist brother and Tripp’s daughter Kate Sprague on vocals, as well as classical guitarist Fred Benedetti and his two daughters, The Benedetti’s.

While Sprague is tired of the pandemic, it has proven to be a productive time for him. He was one of the first musicians in the region to start broadcasting live after the COVID-19 stay-at-home notices were published.

“I’ve always wanted to get more involved in video and do live concerts in my studio,” he says. When all the gigs failed, he made the most of a bad script.

“When the pandemic hit, that’s what I fell into right away, and I actually had a good time. I have accomplished something that has a lot of legs.

It has produced, filmed and broadcast 24 music shows with various artists since spring 2020, offering a virtual tip pot to grateful listeners.

He calls the 7:00 PM session on December 21 “live (ish)” because guitar maestro Benedetti and his daughters can’t be there. Benedetti just retired this month from Grossmont College where he was Associate Professor of Music and Head of Guitar Studies. They will record their games early for inclusion in the “Holiday on Saltwater” program broadcast live.

Sprague will play using the double neck guitar he designed – one neck with nylon strings and the other with steel strings. Tripp will play chromatic flute with saxophone and harmonica.

Other musicians include Danny Green on piano, Justin Grinnell on bass, Johnny Minchin on harmonica, Duncan Moore on drums, and vocalists Nina Francis, Lisa Hightower and Pamela Pendrell.

As the concert is titled “Peter Sprague Plays The Holidays”, the guitarist has learned that audiences want more than Christmas tunes, so he mixes them up.

For those who cannot attend the free live, other concerts are on their agenda: the Peter Sprague Quartet on January 15 at Dizzy’s on Morena Boulevard, the Peter Sprague Trio on January 17 at the Athenaeum in La Jolla and at Ki’s Restaurant in Cardiff on January 21st.

Will the 66-year-old musician continue to host these free holiday concerts?

“As long as it’s a good time, I’m in it.”

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