Tribute to Sergio Mendes at Anthology this Sunday

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Photo by Katie Fisher

Photo by Katie Fisher

By Erick Pettersen

This Sunday at 7pm, at Anthology – a jazz club in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood – an ensemble of seven jazz performers, including jazz guitarist Peter Sprague and vocalist Kevyn Lettau, will perform a tribute concert to Sergio Mendes – a Brazilian musician who plays bossa nova, which he crosses with funk and jazz. Mendes influenced modern jazz, as well as the seven people who will perform that evening.

In 1995, many years after he met Mendes, jazz guitarist Peter Sprague’s musical aspirations almost wore away like the ledge of a flood worn sandstone cliff. After almost two decades of playing guitar on the road, Sprague found himself on the road away from his wife Stefani and daughter Kylie more than he wanted. Then, doctors diagnosed the new father with Psoriatic Arthritis1, and the direction of his musical career changed.

After that diagnosis, he decided he could no longer play guitar full time, so he opened his recording studio Spragueland – the west coast solution to Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland Studio. Sprague recalls of the choice to open Spragueland, “For your family to thrive, that’s your key right there. It’s just to be in the family, and not the stranger that reports back once a month or something.”

More than a decade after the first days of Spragueland, Kylie plays the piano and sings. Every year, Sprague and Kylie, along with friends and family, perform at the amphitheatre outside Del Mar’s Inn l’Auberge. Sprague opens his guitar case and sets it down for people to throw their tips in. It’s a tradition he began in 1978.

When Sprague gets away from the music, he takes his family on camping trips, practices yoga, and enjoys his family the best he can. For the most part, he and Kylie enjoy different music; though, they found common interests in The Beatles and an Irish folk-rock band called Solaf.

Before they discovered those common interests, when Sprague first noticed signs of Psoriatic Arthritis, he took six months off. He hoped the pain would end; though, it spread throughout his body. He explored holistic medicine and yoga, but the pain overwhelmed him. For years, while he struggled to continue his music career, he suffered in silence.

Though, Sprague found comfort in the understanding of long time friend and jazz vocalist Kevyn Lettau – the original voice Kylie came to replace on that Christmas Eve stage. Sprague met Lettau in 1978 when he formed the band, “The Dance of the Universe Orchestra.” They needed a vocalist, and Lettau needed a musical outlet. After Lettau left the band, she toured with Sergio Mendes for eight years, and then found success in the U.S. and Asia.

When she recorded “The Color of Love,” Lettau came to the edge of her own flood worn cliff. After one record company declined to work with Lettau, they said to her lawyer, “She obviously is a good singer, but her voice is too healthy.” Her pianist, Russell Ferrante, told her the same thing Bobby Vincer of the Yellowjackets told him: “You’ve got to strive for tone.” Lettau realized Ferrante meant she had to work on maintaining flexibility and freedom in her voice. Devastated because “[She] really loved having a healthy voice,” she learned from that advice.

Six years after the release of “The Color of Love,” Lettau sometimes feels inadequate. Speaking of her song What is Enough, she admitted, “I’ve never felt like I’ve been enough, as a woman or as a singer or as a human being;” though, she realizes “I’m not alone in that. There’s a lot of people like that.” That realization led Lettau to acknowledge if she had to choose any other career, she would become a family therapist and work with incest victims – other’s who often suffer in silence.

On Sunday, July 26, after more than three decades of collaborating with names like Chuck Correa, Al Jarreau, and others, the sum of Sprague and Lettau’s silent sufferings, difficult choices, and unbreakable friendship will bring them to the Anthology stage. Sprague commented of the many tribute concerts he and his band performs, “We love the challenge of saying we’re going to do a whole night of this music . . . What can we do to bring something new to it.” He added that by focusing on a certain jazz musician and learning from their music it improves his music. Of the audience’s opportunity to hear the illustrious sounds of Sergio Mendes, Sprague said, “It’s kind of a way for them to live in the moment of Sergio Mendes for a night.”

Alongside Sprague and Lettau, jazz enthusiasts will hear Leonard Patton and Carol MacFarland-Thuet on vocals, Tripp Sprague on sax and flute, Gunnar Biggs on bass, and Duncan Moore on drums. After years of making difficult choices and pushing through the pain, Sprague and Lettau will pay tribute to Sergio Mendes – a man whose music helped bring them through all of those hard times.

1. Sveilich, Carol, Just Fine, Avid Reader Press, 2004.

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