The fact that five internationally celebrated jazz guitarists from four countries are now embarked on U.S. tours that include La Jolla Athenaeum concerts between Feb. 1 and March 2 may qualify as musical manna for six-string fans.
Two of them, Austria’s Wolfgang Muthspiel and Spain’s Oscar Peñas, will be making their San Diego debuts. The other three — Brazil’s Romero Lubambo and Chico Pinheiro, and New York native Mimi Fox — are established audience favorites here.
All five have distinguished themselves as singular solo artists. Ditto as key collaborators with an array of legendary artists in — and out of — jazz, with credits that range from Billie Eilish, Diana Krall and Esperanza Spalding to Yo-Yo Ma, Brad Mehldau and Grover Washington, Jr.
“The fact that the guitar is an instrument that many people can play a bit — unlike the cello, for example — is dear to me,” said Muthspiel, who opens the Athenaeum series on Feb. 1. “It has so many layers and there is still so much to discover on the guitar. There are thousands of approaches to this instrument.”
By coincidence, at least five other guitar greats and rising stars will be showcased here this month, starting with former Chick Corea bandmate Scott Henderson’s performance with his trio tonight at Dizzy’s in Bay Park. The same venue is also scheduled to host concerts by San Diego’s Peter Sprague on Saturday, followed by French gypsy jazz specialist Stéphane Wrembel on Jan. 18.
For good measure, Australian acoustic fingerstyle virtuoso Tommy Emanuel will be at the Balboa Theatre on Jan. 21, while veteran six-string solo star and former Frank Zappa “stunt guitarist” Steve Vai is set to perform Jan. 28 at The Magnolia in El Cajon.
Each of them will demonstrate different facets of an instrument that — even in an era dominated by computerized music and digital sampling — continues to have global allure.
“The guitar is a most majestic instrument because of the beauty and immediacy it provides for player and listener alike,” said Fox, whose Feb. 23 Athenaeum performance will mark her area debut with the San Francisco String Trio. The group also features Danish violinist Mads Tolling and former San Diego bassist Jeff Denson.
“When two hands and six strings come together, a special alchemy takes hold,” Fox elaborated. “For me, I love the vibration of the wood against my body and the endless challenges mastering the instrument provides.”
“It is a fascinating instrument, in the sense that you can carry it with you anywhere — like a true orchestra. A portable orchestra!” he said from his Brazilian hometown of São Paulo. His Feb. 6 concert at the Athenaeum will be in a guitar duo with his countryman, Lubambo.
‘Every house in Brazil has a guitar’
Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro performs during the International Jazz Day 2019 All-Star Global Concert in Melbourne, Australia.
(Graham Denholm / Getty Images for Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz)
“As Pat Metheny, who lived in Brazil for a little while, likes to say: ‘Every house in Brazil has a guitar standing in a corner.’ That is true! And I think that happens in the States, too,” Pinheiro continued.
“With a guitar, you can literally play any kind of music, from A to Z, by yourself. I don’t know any other instrument where you can play, by yourself — from rock to classical, from Brazilian to jazz and soul — in such an intimate way, but at the same time with such fullness and richness. Perhaps the piano? But you will never be able to carry a piano to a beach and play it. Well, only if you’re Elton John!”
The five guitarists performing in the Athenaeum series were recently interviewed via email by the San Diego Union-Tribune about their approach to their craft and their instruments. Here are profiles of each, along with some of their edited responses to our questions.
Mimi Fox has established herself as a jazz guitar mainstay, thanks to her nuanced performances, fleet-fingered instrumental command, and improvisational ingenuity.
(Grason Littles / Courtesy Jeff Denson and San Francisco String Trio)
Born: Aug. 24, 1956, New York City; resides in the Bay Area
First solo album: “Against the Grain” (1985)
Latest album: “This Bird Still Flies” (2019)
Notable collaborators: Abbey Lincoln, Mundell Lowe, Marian McPartland, Branford Marsalis
Praise from her peers: “Mimi plays with tremendous fire; she can do pretty much whatever she wants with the guitar.” — Joe Pass
Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel rose to prominence as a member of vibraphone legend Gary Burton’s band in the 1990s and is now an established solo artist in his own right.
(Laura Pleifer / Courtesy Wolfgang Muthspiel)
Born: March 2, 1965, Judenburg, Austria; resides in Vienna
First album: “Timezones” (1989)
Latest album: “Angular Blues” (2020)
Notable collaborators: Gary Burton, Ralph Towner, Brad Mehldau, Paul Motian
Praise from his peers: “He’s gotten to a place where he sounds like Wolfgang. My favorite players actually sound like they’re speaking.” — Ralph Towner
Born: July 20, 1955, Rio de Janeiro; resides in Reno
First solo album: “Autonomia” (1990)
Latest album: “Live at Dizzy’s Lincoln Center, New York City” (2021)
Notable collaborators: Angelique Kidjo, Billie Eilish, Larry Coryell, Michael Brecker
Praise from his peers: “He possesses the otherworldly command of subtleties and nuances that can only be coaxed from the hands of a master.” — Wynton Marsalis
Born: Aug. 13, 1972, in Barcelona, Spain; resides in New York City
First solo album: “Astronautas” (2004)
Latest album: “Music of Departures and Returns” (2014)
Notable collaborators: Ron Carter, Esperanza Spalding, Luciana Souza, Paquito D’Rivera
Praise from his peers: “Oscar has found a way to merge traditional Spanish music with jazz in a way that seems totally natural and fresh.” — Gil Goldstein
Born: Dec. 8, 1980, São Paulo; resides in New York City
First solo album: “Meia Noite Meio Dia” (“Midnight Noon”) 2004
Latest album: “Varanda” (2017)
Notable collaborators: Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Placido Domingo, Lee Ritenour
Praise from his peers: “There are many incredible guitarists out there. On the top of that list, I’d include Chico Pinheiro.” — Pat Metheny
Barcelona native Oscar Penas has become one of Spain’s most notable jazz musicians to earn international attention.
Pick-six: Guitarists Q&A
Q: You have each worked with a diverse array of musicians, as well as leading your own bands. What do you try to bring to every concert or recording date you do, no matter what the style may be?
Fox: “It’s important for me to honor the musicians I am working with by playing the best that I can in every situation. I also try to play with passion and intention and bring my unique musical qualities to each experience.”
Muthspiel: “My main goal is to learn the music in such a way that I can play it without too much reading or thinking. Obviously, I want to contribute something that works for the song and for the band and for myself. I hope to help in making some kind of musical conversation between the instruments.”
Peñas: “Whether I play a twelve-bar blues or a through-composed long-form song, I try to tell a story that takes the listener and my bandmates somewhere else. The ultimate goal of what I do is to emotionally connect with the audience. I leave it up to them to interpret the message.”
Pinheiro: “It’s really like codes that demand specific knowledge and ability. How do you speak fluently, interact and deliver your voice, and at the same time respect that code? You have to know about the history, peculiarities and references of the genre or style you’re working in. Knowing the musicians you’re working with helps, too. And if you’re sensitive enough to play, not aiming for just your performance, your solo, your part, but for the whole, the music will indeed thank you.”
Q: Life without music is …
Pinheiro: “Somewhat meaningless.”
Peñas: “A boring movie with no soundtrack.”
Fox: “All wrong.”
Muthspiel: “Not possible.”
Q: Not that music didn’t mean a lot to you before, but during such a terrible worldwide pandemic, does music mean something new or different to you now?
Fox: “Yes. Since the opportunity to perform live was taken away I realized how important this is for me. The reciprocity — the give-and-take — that happens with an audience when I am playing is an important way that I give to others. And I missed this very much.”
Pinheiro: “Absolutely! We always took many things for granted as working musicians before the pandemic. Now they certainly have a different meaning to all of us. Things like gathering and playing an ‘ordinary’ gig with friends at a club, or playing a jam session at somebody’s basement, or even traveling around, became something extraordinary. Every moment of the music-making process became precious or even more special.”
Peñas: “Music was one thing that kept many people afloat, and we all realized more about its tremendous value when live concerts and in-person lessons were not feasible. Music still means the same to me as before the lockdown, and I hope we all can safely enjoy it as we used to. And guess what? It is already starting to happen.”
Lubambo: “Music was always super-important for me and for humanity. But in this pandemic, we saw how really important it is. Millions of people used music to stay mentally and physically healthy.”
Muthspiel: “Music is everything. Now we realize that we can’t take for granted that we can perform in front of audiences. So this aspect of music has taken on a deeper meaning. I applaud all promoters and venues who keep it going, all the musicians and all the agents and sound people who are still dedicated to the art of music. We need you.”
Brazilian guitar great Romero Lubambo is now a resident of Reno. His past collaborators range from Herbie Mann and Astrud Gilberto to Diana Krall and Larry Coryell.
(Piu Dip / Courtesy Romero Lubambo)
Q: If you could sit down with any instrumentalist or composer from the past, who would it be and why?
Peñas: “The list would be endless, but I will narrow it down. … It would be nice to talk with John Lennon about songwriting, Gil Evans about orchestration, Nadia Boulanger about her students, Pixinguinha about choro, Astor Piazzolla about counterpoint and breaking style boundaries, and Nat ‘King’ Cole about his drummer-less piano trios.”
Pinheiro: “Bach, Chopin, Garoto and Villa Lobos, for sure. I think the first two were absolutely game-changers in music history, such masters and out-of-this-world melodists. Garoto and Villa Lobos were both very important in my development as a musician, right from the beginning.”
Fox: “John Coltrane. I would thank him for changing the trajectory of my musical life and for inspiring me as a player-composer to continually strive for the highest levels of musicianship, compositional maturity, and spiritual development. And for deepening my humanity.”
Lubambo: “Wes Montgomery. I would like to learn more and more the secret to always play beautifully, right and with a great sound that he always had. Amazing.”
Muthspiel: “Oh, how about a day with Bach or Mozart? Their work was so deep and extensive, their translation from idea to realization so direct. I would be interested in how they integrate work and the rest of life.”
Q: When people come to your upcoming gig in La Jolla or anywhere else on your tour, what can they expect? I don’t mean what will your repertoire be, rather, what kind of musical and emotional experience do you want to give them?
Peñas: “This is my first time playing on the West Coast after living 17 years in the U.S. The primary goal of this show in La Jolla and the rest of the tour is ‘getting to know each other,’ introducing my music to the Western audience, and, if possible, establishing a long-term relationship. I hope the public has a good time, relaxes, and enjoys the evening. Our job will be more than accomplished if we give the audience goosebumps at some point.”
Muthspiel: “I would say that our trio with Scott and Brian makes some silky music with big spaces. … It means so much to do this tour of the U.S. with these players. I long for it and look forward to sharing.”
Pinheiro: “Romero and I have a long history of friendship and mutual admiration behind us, and we have an incredible connection when we play together. It’s almost magical. I’m sure that our friendship and unique relationship will be present at the concert.”
Lubambo: “Chico and I will play several songs that people know, but with a different approach and a different sensibility. It is great to play with Chico and we have a very special connection as friends and as musicians. Both of us have so many influences from many types of music, and we are going to bring all that to the people.”
Fox: “My bandmates in the San Francisco String Trio are incredible musicians with sterling musical sensibilities, so people can expect a lot of joyous interplay and spontaneity. There’s a lot of chemistry between all of us and we hope to provide some magical moments for everyone.”
La Jolla Athenaeum 2022 winter jazz series
All concerts are at 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1: Wolfgang Muthspiel Trio, featuring Scott Colley and Brian Blade
Feb. 6: Romero Lubambo and Chico Pinheiro
Feb. 23: San Francisco String Trio, featuring Mimi Fox, Jeff Denson and Mads Tolling
March 2: Oscar Peñas Quartet, featuring Sara Caswell, Motohito Fukushima and Richie Barshay
Where: Joan & Irwin Jacobs Music Room, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla
Tickets: $35 per concert (members) and $40 (non-members); series tickets are $132 (members) and $152 (non-members)
Phone: (858) 454-5872
Health protocols: All attendees must be masked and provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken no more than 48 hours prior to each concert.