The late guitarist Melvin Sparks was one of the unsung (or perhaps under-sung would be more appropriate) heroes of jazz. He appeared on dozens of recordings as a sideman, but only recorded eleven albums under his own name.
Sparks was born March 22, 1946 in Houston, Texas. He began playing guitar at age 11, and was only 13 years old when he had the opportunity to sit in with B.B. King. Later on he would appear, in concert or on record, with many jazz, soul and blues greats such as Idris Muhammad, Rusty Bryant, Bernard Purdie, Hank Crawford, Charles Earland, Little Richard, Jimmy McGriff, Alvin Queen, Reuben Wilson, Curtis Mayfield, Sonny Stitt, Houston Person, Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, and others. He died at home in Mount Vernon, New York, on March 15, 2011.
The Melvin Sparks recording I want to discuss this time is the album that would prove to be his next-to-last, the 2005 Savant recording, “This Is It.”
The personnel for this album are:
Melvin Sparks, guitar
Jerry Z, Hammond B3 organ
Jennifer Hartswick, trumpet
Cochemea Gastelum, sax
Justin Tomsovic, drums
Nikki Armstrong, backing vocals
The 900 pound gorilla in the room is the fact that, until I acquired this album, I had never heard of any of those folks, other than Sparks himself. I suspect the same is probably true for most folks.
In fact, audio engineer Tommy Tedesco, who was a living legend among session guitarists, was more well-known than any of the musicians who actually played on this album.
“This Is It” gives us nine tracks, all but two of which were written by Sparks. We open with the title track, and it lively choice it is. Sparks plays in an easy-going, open style that fans of many genres will find easy to follow. Drummer Tomsovic beats up a storm as the song opens, the falls back as Sparks takes the lead. Eventually the horns join for a bit, and everyone gives us a lively effort.
“Bambu” is up next. This is another Sparks original, and this time we get to hear more from the horns right from the opening notes. Gastelum and Hartswick do a bang-up job, and when Gastelum gets his shot at a solo, he doesn’t waste it. The warm sound of his sax adds a welcome touch. Then Sparks steps forward to take a solo of his own, perhaps to remind us whose album this is. Hi careful choices of notes articulate the message well. Sparks is then followed by Hartswick on trumpet. The Vermont native, who studied jazz under Jackie McLean and others, acquits herself well. Instrumental jazz is largely a boys club, and women trumpeters are even rarer. Her appearance here is one more brick through the glass ceiling of gender barriers, and will hopefully help open the way for others. Jerry Z and his organ take the next solo and does a great job of it before both horns return.
Skipping ahead to track four we find the Smokey Robinson/Ronald White classic, “My Girl.” Jerry Z opens this one and is followed one by one by the whole troupe. There is a danger in playing well-known songs such as “My Girl,” and that is of failing to meet the listener’s pre-conceived expectations. That was not really a problem here though, and overall the gang does a great job on this song. Having said that, I do need to mention that toward the end someone (Sparks?) dabbles in a bit of vocal that, if overdone, could have ruined the song. As it is, it adds just the right touch to end the piece.
“Watch Yo’ Step” is a Sparks tour de force. The guitarist dominates this one from start to finish, with Tomsovic’s drums and Z’s B3 organ lending support.
“Bounce,” “The Light Is On,” and Jack McDuff’s “Hot Barbecue” round out the album in good order. This is one of the shorter versions of “Hot Barbecue” that I’ve heard, but certainly not lacking in the funky weirdness that usually accompanies the song.
YouTube has a dozen or more of Sparks’ songs available, but of course none of them are from this album.
Despite that, I am sure you will find “This Is It!” from Melvin Sparks to be a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
If you would like to find out more about Melvin Sparks and his music, noted jazz writer Nate Chinen wrote an informative obituary for him which appeared in the New York Times. Alex Henderson has penned a comparatively brief bio of Sparks for the allmusic.com web site. And over at jazzwax.com they have a nice obit of Sparks also.
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