Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Baaad Jazz - Melvin Sparks R.I.P.

Back at the beginning of March, Melvin Sparks jumped to the front of the line, in the crowded queue of thoughts in my head. One of my fave blogs, Record Fiend, did a post about his first record, Sparks! (1970). For the next week or so I listened to the 4 records I have for Melvin, a 2003 live jam, and some of the numerous sessions he played on during the height of the jazz-funk, soul-jazz era. A go to guitarist for organ players, in 1970 alone he cut records with Charles Earland, Leon Spencer,Sonny Phillips,and Charles Kynard. Not to mention his work with other leaders like, Idris Muhammad, Rusty Bryant, and Lou Donaldson. That list was only one year, and , of course, doesn't include his debut as a leader.

Thank You (Sly Stone cover)

Personnel for Sparks! (1970)
Drums - Idris Muhammad  
Organ - Leon Spencer, Jr.
Saxophone [Tenor] - Houston Person , John Manning
Trumpet - Virgil Jones

Just after I was coming down off the Sparks groove cloud, some bad news came across the wire. I read in the New York Times that Mr. Sparks had died March 15th, at his home in Mount Vernon, NY. He was only 64 years old.  Mr. Sparks was not a long lost musician of a bygone era, he was very active throughout a career that spanned over 4 decades.
Melvin Sparks first came to my attention in the early 90's as a re-discovered hero for the Acid Jazz scene. Always soulful and funky on record, his catalog doesn't see him straying too far from his R&B roots.

Before he got in on the ground floor of the soul jazz scene he backed Hank Ballard, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, and Little Richard, as a teenager. Coupled with the aforementioned jazz cats, this makes Mr. Sparks bonafides prety much untouchable, in any bag.

Two of his first three records, Sparks! and Akilah (named after one of his daughters) were reissued as a pair in the early 90's. One of the first glimpses young crate diggers (like myself) got of the classic soul jazz records that were a part of  groove movement in the 70's, but rare in the 90's.  Jazz critics pretty much dismiss this era, but it was a goldmine to me...and evidently to more than a few of the bands that got the hard to shake Acid Jazz tag (more on that later).

Go get Sparks! and Akilah

All Wrapped Up

Personnel for Akilah (1972)
Drums-Idris Muhammad
Flute-Dave Hubbard,Hubert Laws
Organ,Piano-Leon Spenser
Percussion-Buddy Caldwell
Alto- George Coleman, Sonny Fortune
Tenor-Dave Hubbard,Frank Wess
Trumpet-Ernie Royal, Virgil Jones

After his first 3 albums for the venerable Prestige label, Mr. Sparks moved on to upstart Detroit (Ohio Players, Funkadelic, The Counts) label, Westbound, and their jazz-centric Eastbound imprint. I don't know the circumstances of the departure from Prestige, but the fact is, soul-jazz was waning in popularity, and funk was on the rise. His Westbound sides are more produced (horns/strings) and also include vocals. Soul Jazz might have been on the wane, but Melvin's brand of gritty,single note funk never goes out of style.
Texas Twister

Personnel for Texas Twister (1973)
Baritone Saxophone – Edward Xiques
Congas – Buddy Caldwell
Drums – Idris Muhammad
Electric Bass – Wilbur Bascomb
Electric Piano – Sonny Phillips
Guitar – Ron Miller
Guitar, Arranged By, Conductor – Melvin Sparks
Organ – Ceasar Frazier
Tenor Saxophone – Ron Bridgewater
Trumpet – Cecil Bridgewater , Jon Faddis

By 1975, the music that passed as popular jazz, was rapidly infusing funk and disco sounds in order to gain spots on radio outlets that were drifting closer and closer to what would become to be known as smooth jazz.  That's probably the reason that 75 is my least favorite of the early Melvin Sparks records. That said, the LP is not devoid of highlights (or funk). It is a bit too polished for me though.

Go Get Texas Twister and 75

Get Ya Some

The late 70's and early 80's were tough times for jazz as a popular music. As record companies became more corporate, more driven by marketing, and beholden to new trends like MTV and the CD, new jazz suffered. Melvin Sparks kept working though, recording as a leader and sideman for indie labels like Milestone and Muse. Jazz, except those great artists enshrined in the (major label) canon, went almost completely underground.
Over in England, the late 80's and early 90's saw the jazz that had gone underground (and almost forgotten) inspiring a new underground: a DJ based, hip hop related, record collector driven movement; that would be tagged as acid jazz.

DJ's led parties that were dancing to jazz, particularly the Hammond B-3-centric jazz from the soul and funk era. Bands also started to get in on the act, and one of the first was the James Taylor Quartet. Led by B3 cat James Taylor and releasing a string of Spy/Mod instrumental records starting in 1987, the JTQ went back to their roots in 1992 under the guise of the New Jersey Kings. This faux-lost classic of Hammond grooves, contained a cover of Melvin Sparks' All Wrapped Up, and was one of the earliest entries in the Soul Jazz revival.
 Go get Party To The Bus Stop

All Wrapped Up (JTQ Version)

Get Organized

The hip hop, crate digger part of acid jazz was more pronounced (and came a little later) in the US. Right out front was DJ Greyboy, who mixed DJ styles with live instruments on his 1994 debut for Ubiquity, Freestylin'. Greyboy (a.k.a Andreas Stevens) would later form the Greyboy All Stars with some like minded young jazz players and tour under the banner of the Greyboy All Stars, who made quite a name for themselves on the jam band club circuit, introducing new sax lion Karl Denson, along with calling on Melvin Sparks to open for the All Stars on tour.

Go get Freestylin'

In a lot of ways Freestylin' was the re-introduction of soul jazz (under the guise of Acid Jazz) to American audiences. Groups like The Solsonics (LA), Groove Collective (NYC), and Liquid Soul (Chicago) would follow closely behind. It's no surprise then, that Greyboy's first record would feature a Melvin Sparks cover amongst it's grooves (Texas Twister).
Texas Twister

Lite Bake

So, a lot of things came together (DJ culture, crate digging, acid jazz, hip hop) and opened the door for Melvin Sparks to return. He was more than ready...gigging and recording with old friends (like Houston Person and Jimmy McGriff) and new jacks (Soulive, Karl Denson, Galactic) alike, as folks started to come around to an old idea that seemed new...jazz was a music you could dance to. Mr. Sparks mentored young musicians while continuing to hit festivals and clubs up through the time that high blood pressure and diabetes caught up with him. He will be missed by generations of players and listeners..R.I.P., Mr. Sparks, a true Godfather of the Good Groove.

Check out these 3 long jams from 2003 at the North Beach Jazz Festival