Tim Sparks: The Journey Back Home
Fingerstyle wizard and world traveler Tim Sparks merges his North Carolina roots with the many indigenous sounds he has explored throughout his career.
North Carolina has produced some legendary musicians—saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Thelonious Monk, to name just two. Fingerstyle guitarist Tim Sparks also grew up in North Carolina, and like those jazz pioneers, he has synthesized a range of far-flung sounds to develop an idiosyncratic voice on his instrument.
Sparks, who is 60, learned to play guitar through deciphering country blues and gospel songs by ear. At 14, he received a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he flourished as a guitarist, studying the nylon-string under Jesus Silva, a protégé of the great Andrés Segovia.
After graduating from the School of the Arts in 1973, Sparks had no trouble making a name for himself as a working musician. While touring with an R&B band, he discovered Minneapolis and soon made it his home base. In the Twin Cities, Sparks played in the jazz ensemble Rio Nido before exploring traditional music in Portugal and Eastern Europe through a series of grants—music he'd revisit in various world-music ensembles in the United States beginning in the late '80s.
In 1992, Sparks amazed fans of solo steel-string guitar with his inventive adaptation of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite. The following year he won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, and then, starting with One String Leads to Another (1999), began to explore both his American and world-music roots in a series of solo outings. At the same time, Sparks put a new spin on traditional Jewish music by releasing a quartet of albums—Neshamah (1999), Tanz (2000), At the Rebbe's Table (2002), and Little Princess (2009)—on composer John Zorn's Tzadik label.
Sparks' latest release, Chasin' the Boogie, is something of a homecoming. He conceived of the album during recent visits to his ailing mother in North Carolina, which, naturally, triggered memories of his early years spent learning music. On the album he reworks traditional numbers like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and “Wayfaring Stranger," and explores new territory in more contemporary songs like Paul McCartney's “Blackbird" and Joni Mitchell's “Both Sides Now."
We talked with Sparks about his formative experiences in North Carolina and the musical travels he's enjoyed along the path to becoming a fingerstyle great.
What was the scene like at the North Carolina School of the Arts in the early 1970s?
My teachers were Javier Calderon and Jesus Silva. Javier taught me how to imagine the guitar sound projecting to the back of the concert hall. Jesus Silva was a disciple of Andrés Segovia, who came to the school to conduct master classes. Silva was also a protégé of Manuel Ponce. Silva emphasized creating expressive and beautiful music, and not getting tripped up by mistakes in performance. My exposure to Bach, Sor, Albeniz, and Latin American composers was crucial.
I also met Duck Baker when I was a student there. He introduced me to a postmodernist, omnivorous approach to music that could be played on guitar. And I discovered Fats Waller, who seemed to embody both the streams of blues and classical music, which would become an important blueprint for my style.
Tell us more about what you learned from Baker.
Through Duck I came to understand that I didn't need to be on a strictly determined path and only play classical or jazz. Duck played everything from Irish jigs to ragtime to swing to modern stream of consciousness. He really opened my eyes to what a modern player's repertoire could be like. Now we live in an eclectic world where people mix and match styles, but that was a big step back then.
How did you become immersed in the ethnic music scene, for lack of a better term, and what impact did this have on your playing?
My ensemble Rio Nido came to an end around 1987, and then my wife and I traveled for a few months in Europe. I had always been captivated by Béla Bartók and Eastern European folk music, so our trek included Budapest, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, where we encountered amazing Roma music and, of course, rhythms in meters like 7/8 and 9/8. This music sparked my interest in playing these crazy rhythms and mysterious scales.
How did you go about learning those crazy rhythms and mysterious scales?
When I was back in Minneapolis, I began working as an accompanist in all kinds of ethnic ensembles—Brazilian, klezmer, belly dancing, Persian. I got a chance to understand the music in more than just an intellectual way. I learned these meters by playing with drummers—who had a way of naturally accenting the beats in an odd measure so that I always knew when the downbeat was coming—and by watching dancers. Through playing with these groups, I also developed a melodic affinity for the music, and a connection on a lot of levels.
Tim Sparks' 10th solo album, Chasin' the Boogie, was produced by Peter Finger in Osnabrück, Germany. Finger also produced Sparks first solo record, Nutcracker Suite, in 1993.
Talk about being exposed to fado and the guitarra Portuguesa while you were in Lisbon.
I spent a lot of time in a little quarter of Bairro Alto known as the Bica, and there was a fado joint in the area where a big congregation of fadistas would gather on weekends. A guitarra Portuguesa and a violão, which is what they call a guitar, sat in the corner to be played for all the singers. Everyone was welcome—amateurs and professionals. If the crowd liked you, they would show their approval by joining in on the chorus. I was also able to learn some things from Pedro Caldeira Cabral, an extraordinary master of the guitarra Portuguesa.
I learned certain techniques that were new to me. For instance, I saw him take a walnut shell, put it on his thumb, and use it to tap on the soundboard while he played, adding a percussive element to what he was doing with his other fingers.
Also to embrace the new and the old: Pedro Cabral is sort of a Portuguese Ornette Coleman. He took traditional music into new and atonal places. Just as with Ornette, this was met with negativity in a lot of quarters, especially in the fado community. But at the same time, Cabral has a very deep understanding of Renaissance and medieval music, as well as the traditional music of his country. Portugal is a very small country, but with four or five different regions. He's very familiar with the distinct musical style of each.
What did you learn from adapting Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite to guitar in the late '80s?
It's not always possible to play everything that's in a full orchestration. I worked from a piano reduction in order to do my arrangement. Some of it was mechanical—reducing octave parts to single notes in the bass, for example. It's kind of like you want to get to the bones of a piece in order to do something that reflects its spirit in a meaningful way.
Another thing is that I learned the pieces in their original keys, transposing some of them to the best possible key on guitar. Now I use a capo for easy transposing, but then I did everything without the capo, which sometimes required going through different fingerings in order to find the best key to play a piece in.
What's it like to work with John Zorn?
It was through Duck Baker that I was introduced to Zorn, who produced Spinning Song, Duck's amazing recording of the music of Herbie Nichols. Zorn is very sincere. He has a contagious enthusiasm. All the musicians in his circle, like Cyro Baptista and Greg Cohen, are warm, totally down-to-earth people. The work I have done for Tzadik [Zorn's label] has been the best experience. Zorn has encouraged me to be eclectic in my repertoire and, more importantly, in my improvisational vocabulary.
Tim Sparks revisits his roots in this masterful fingerstyle arrangement of “I'll Fly Away."
How did the title track of Chasin' the Boogie come about?
I've done many arrangements of ragtime and jazz piano music for guitar, and a lot of this is on my album Sidewalk Blues. For “Chasin' the Boogie," I had the idea to play a piano boogie-woogie on guitar. I just started crafting and discovering riffs, and by tuning the 6th string to D, I found a basis to create the tune.
Some of the covers—“Blackbird," “Mr. Bojangles," and “Both Sides Now"—use dropped-D tuning for rich reharmonizations.
Yes. In drop D, the D chord is very big and rich. I find it so interesting to play in keys other than D in this tuning, like in A, on “Mr. Bojangles," where the rich D chord arrives as the IV chord, creating a special moment in the arrangement.
On “Both Sides Now," there are moments that recall the harmonies of John Coltrane's “After the Rain." Is this just a coincidence? And why did you quote “As Time Goes By" in that song?
“After the Rain" is one of my favorite Coltrane tunes. In my arrangement of “Both Sides Now," I play the reharmonization of the melody over a D pedal tone, which calls to mind the Coltrane tune. I added the quote of “As Time Goes By" because it's also a tune about acquiring wisdom.
What was the recording process like, and what gear did you use?
I recorded the album at Peter Finger's studio in Osnabrück, Germany, all in one day. The next day we did some edits and mixes. I played a spruce-and-koa cutaway OM made by Charlie Hoffman, a luthier in Minneapolis. I can't remember the mics Peter used, except that they were nice, and not the expected Sennheiser or Neumann models.
Your vocalizations and other transient noises add human warmth on the recording.
I like to joke that I spent years carefully studying the vocalisms of Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, and Joseph Spence, but actually it's just an involuntary response. Perhaps it reflects the connection between the cognitive process and the motor process of playing music. I agree that it does convey a sense that music is happening in the moment.