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World-reknowned pianist Miro Sprague got his start in Shutesbury

  • Miro Sprague Contributed photo/Xiomara Espinoza

  • Miro Sprague performs at the 2015 Montreux Jazz Festival Piano competition. Contributed photo/Damien Richard

  • Miro Sprague performs at the 2015 Montreux Jazz Festival Piano competition. Contributed photo/Damien Richard

  • Miro Sprague performs at the 2015 Montreux Jazz Festival Piano competition. Contributed photo/Damien Richard

  • Pianist Miro Sprague playing at a benefit concert Wednesday in Bezanson Recital Hall at the UMass Fine Arts Center in 2015l. File photo



For the Gazette
Thursday, January 30, 2020

Just a couple of bars into his original solo composition, “Wise Mind,” and it’s apparent that calling Miro Sprague a piano prodigy or even a promising jazz pianist hardly does justice to the 34-year-old western Massachusetts native.

Sprague, who began playing piano as a 13-year-old in Shutesbury and 21 years later — now based in Los Angeles — has achieved a reputation as an inspiring young jazz musician, remains humble as his fingers glide over the keyboard and he cozies up intimately around the notes, immersing himself and his audience in sublime exploration of music.

The recipient of Downbeat Magazine’s 2002, 2003 and 2004 National Student Music Award, Sprague graduated from Manhattan School of Music and then the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA.

Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer Billy Childs has called Sprague “a very gifted young pianist. His lyrical and harmonic senses are beautiful and adventurous.”

Rail-thin and shy, Sprague, who highlighted a four-night residency last summer at Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts, culminating with a sellout Stevie Wonder tribute that featured his stepfather, Moonlight Davis, got hooked on jazz after receiving a copy of Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” from his father, John Sprague, at age 13.

“I fell in love with it, and I listened to it over and over again,” he recalls.

Sprague mostly lived in Shutesbury with his father after the split-up of his musician parents at age of 6 or 7, but also moved around with them to Whately, Turners Falls, Northampton and also stayed at times in Erving with his mother, MorningStar Chenven and Davis, both singers.

Although both parents played piano and both households were filled with music, Sprague says, as a child, he was much more interested in creative writing. But while he wasn’t encouraged to take up an instrument, he played around with percussion instruments that were around the house.

“I can’t exactly say why the piano is the instrument I went to,” as he tried to replicate what he was hearing on “Kind of Blue,” he says. “The simple explanation is we had a piano in the house … maybe it was the easiest thing to go to.”

His father, who plays flutes, piano and percussion to accompany movement classes, was a fan of jazz, “but growing up, it wasn’t like I was listening to jazz in particular. We’d listen to alternative rock and stuff like Stevie Wonder.”

Within several months of discovering the piano and trying to teach himself to play, Sprague’s Shutesbury neighbor, Dagen Julty, began giving him lessons about scales and music theory and encouraging him to compose.

His deep dive into jazz in those days, though, coincided with the start of homeschooling and enrolling at Pathfinder (now North Star in Sunderland) where his older brother, Tibet, had become a charter enrollee.

“Even though Shutesbury Elementary (School) was a pretty good elementary school, and I definitely had some good teachers, the overall concept never sat that well with me. ‘Why is somebody else telling me what I should do with my time, what I should learn?’ ” says Sprague. “Also, I was pretty shy and didn’t really fit into any social circles exactly. … I just kind of wanted to do my own thing.”

More and more, that “thing” evolved into jazz. Attending North Star gave Sprague more time to practice, explore and find music-making opportunities.

“I put a lot time into it, practicing hours and hours a day,” says Sprague, who sought ways to play in jazz bands at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School and at Amherst College, even though he wasn’t a student at either. As he met musicians in the area, the budding jazz enthusiast also began auditing classes at Amherst College and starting his own jazz group while continuing to write his own music.

He also began taking piano lessons with Eugene Uman at Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, and listening intently to jazz pianists like Bill Evans and Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Winton Kelly on lots of recordings.

“Within two years” of discovering jazz, “I felt pretty strongly it was what I meant to be doing.”

In those early years, Sprague began playing with Ennis, the Williamstown-bred guitarist he’d met at about age 15 at the Vermont jazz camp, Interplay. There, he also met Sonya Kitchell, of Ashfield, soon after she began singing at age 12, and drummer Connor Meehan. Later, at a jam session, he met Conway bassist Jaffee.

After exploring the musical possibilities with such a talented array, Sprague began a jazz performance track at Manhattan School of Music, living in dorms with 24-hour practice rooms where he joined in all-night jam sessions.

“New York was a big culture shock,” he recalls. “I’d been living in the bubble of the Pioneer Valley. Moving to New York definitely shattered that. Everything was shoved in your face: the worst of humanity, the best of humanity, all of humanity, everyone from around the world just kind of jammed in one place. It was intense. It was a challenge for me. It expanded my life in lots of different ways.”

Musically, “It was amazing — just being able to go out and see so much great music any night of the week. Being surrounded by musicians of a certain caliber … there was a lot of experimenting, seeing everyone at the school developing in their own musical direction.”

The competitive energy was intense, “a certain edge that manifests in the music scene, too. You see people kind of trying to prove something. There are people who move to New York who go to all the jam sessions every night, trying to hustle. My personality maybe was not the most in that direction; that’s not, like, who I am. At least not at the time.”

After graduating from the Manhattan school in 2008 and feeling burned out living in the city, Sprague returned to the Pioneer Valley to chill out for 3 ½ years. That hardly meant sitting still, though.

“In New York, I’d been playing a lot but not performing much, because it’s easier said than done to actually get gigs in New York. It’s great to be just workshopping with other musicians and it’s really valuable, but it’s not like the end goal in a sense. I missed just kind of performing for people.”

During those years, Sprague accompanied Kitchel on a tour of Japan and Europe and recorded “Hot Club” with Brattleboro-based vocalist Samirah Evans and Her Handsome Devils.

Sprague’s 2012 admission into the Monk Institute — UCLA’s highly selective graduate jazz program recently renamed the Herbie Hancock Institute — was “pretty amazing,” says the pianist, since the program selects a handful of musicians every two years for an ensemble to play in a tuition-free environment in which housing and a stipend are provided and all expenses are paid for the musicians to focus solely on artistic development and be coached by jazz greats like Hancock, Childs, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter.

Sprague’s ensemble also included bass, drums, vibraphone, trumpet, trombone and alto saxophone. “The idea is that for two years you don’t have to be worrying about making money or hustling, so you can just focus on artistic development. The septet, which recorded later “as Holophoner, all got along. It’s basically each person having a vision for the band and working together really well. We really connected strongly.”

Having an opportunity to develop strong chemistry working out ideas together over two years or more was a rich and rare experience, he says. “I value it a lot.”

In Los Angeles, Sprague also met his future wife, Iris, who works as an urban planner. After moving to New York City for a couple of years , they returned to live in Los Angeles.

Unlike earlier days, when he was focused intently on listening to Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, or Monk, or went through phases listening to Indian classical music or Bach, Sprague hasn’t recently been “listening to one thing in a very concentrated way. And it’s definitely not all jazz.”

Sprague has performed with renowned artists like Wayne Shorter and Matt Wilson and has toured around the U.S. and overseas with vocalist Karrin Allyson, with whom he’s also recorded. Yet he also takes pride in playing with Jaffee and Ennis, “some of my longest and closest musical friends.”

“One of the collective things about music, particularly improvised music, is that each combination of musicians is unique and it generates its own kind of thing, where the change of one person can have a huge effect on the overall feel of a band. A lot of that’s about personalities, and different musicians will bring something out of me that I may not even know is there. People I’ve played with for many years, like Marty or Jason, where we just kind of intuitively communicate at kind of a deeper level, just from the experience of playing together. Everything feeds into it, not just the music itself. It’s all interconnected.”

Whether it’s playing Stevie Wonder tunes as he has with Davis, soloing on jazz standards or riffing with Jaffee and Ennis on original compositions, Sprague said, “It’s always a process of growth, what feels good to me is the with the way I feel I connect with people in some meaningful way. Music is like an infinite thing, and if you’re wanting to learn specific styles, each one is like its own universe.”

Sprague may go into “a zone” while he’s playing, so it may seem like a paradox. Yet, he says, “I try to think of the audience as part of the music. When I’m rehearsing prior to a gig, I often have this feeling like something’s missing, and once I get to the concert, I realize what was missing was the audience.”

His back may be to the audience, he may have his eyes closed, but “I feel like I’m creating some sort of energy that people can people be a part of, a space, like a different world for an hour or so.”

And because it’s improvised from deep within, Sprague says, “It’s personal, and it’s unique to the moment of what’s happening.”

For more information, visit mirosprague.com.