Melvin Sparks does not care much what you call his funkified approach to playing guitar: 21st century acid-jazz, jam-band nirvana, soul-city hard-groovin', whatever.
A legend to a old school soul-jazz lovers and a funk-father to young hipsters, Sparks has sketched a bluesy line that runs from Jack McDuff to Galactic, and he's still doing his thing his way. This Is It, his third recording on Savant label, is the proof.
"What I did on the last two records and not on this one is what I've done over the years ever since my days with the Upsetters" says the Houston native. "It just so happens that the music has been rediscovered by the young people. They started from the stuff that I do. Many of them have moved on and discovered themselves and left me with my music for me to play."
And play it he does. Sparks has convened a group of old and new friends including organist Jerry Z, drummer Justin Tomsovic, and saxophonist Cochemea Gastellum from Robert Walters' 20th Congress band and lets loose on a mix of original and covers that spans the stylistic horizon.
At 59, the guitarist with the grease-meets-sleek sound continues to carve out a niche for himself after complementing many of the giants of jazz, blues, rock, and funk for decades. Whoelse has performed or recorded with Little Richard, Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland, DJ Logic, Idris Muhammad, Richard Sam Cooke, Soulive and Grover Washington Jr.?
Sparks in unnecessarily modest when he talks about he hopes his listeners will get out of This Is It.
"They might be jogging or riding home, on the bus or subway with headphones and if they are in the mood for a little funky jazz, they can put this album on, and say Yeah." Yeah, indeed.
Sparks lays down a weather map's world of temperatures on this album, from deep heat to cool breezes, while never straying far from the funk that's his calling card. A few of the tunes have a bright, almost contemporary jazz feel, including the title cut, "Give Your Life to G-d" and "Watch Yo Step". He wrote several nearly a decade ago in one intense day-long stretch while he was fasting for the religion he practices, Islam.
"I started early in the day, by the time the sun went down, and when it was time to eat, I had completed them." he recalls. "It was very special and productive."
And there are the covers, including a rendition of the Temptations "My Girl" like you've never heard before, replete with a driving organ opener, quicksilver guitar improvisations and a gruff voiced and entertaining Sparks briefly closing things out with some vocalizing of his own.
"I'm no singer, I know that" the guitarist admits. "But I'm trying to make it fun. That's one thing I learned when I was in the Upsetters backing Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, who were real singers. They knew how to make the music fun."
Sparks cover of "Hot Barbeque" is nothing but fast, funky horn-fueled fun. And his own "Bounce" with its deep R&B simmering grooves, is a lesson in history. "When I wrote that I had early Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in mind" Sparks says. "The harmony is the same as Moanin', but with a boogaloo beat."
A boogaloo beat also propels his "Bambu" which he originally recorded back in the 1970s with organist Rueben Wilson. Sparks' ringing guitar excursions on "The Light Is On" remind listeners that his ideas are as facile and original as they come. And "Heavy Fallin Out" shifts the mood again, this time with a cooler shade of blue on the mid-70s Stylistics tune.
On more than 100 albums he has appeared on, and the scores of hip hop tracks that have sampled his sound, Sparks' guitar contributions have never failed to pump the rhythms and juice the soul of every song. At the helm of his own bands and in control of the Melvin Sparks legacy, he has a straightforward vision."
"I just hope I can progress on for the rest of my life and whatever changes I make, will be natural" he says. "I won't be trying to adjust because the music has gone this way, that way or the other way. I want to grow into what's next for me. And I just love to see people have a good time. They don't have to dance if they don't want to as long as they leave happy and as long as it helps them get through whateever it is they're trying to get through."
And that's what Melvin accomplishes so well.