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Melvin Sparks: Live at Nectar’s

Joe Gatto By

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A cool thing about music is that when you follow a band for a long time, you eventually get turned on to the music that influenced them. You get to hear all kinds of exciting new music, and start digging deep, going down groovy rabbit holes to discover great musicians you might not find on your own.

This is the case with Melvin Sparks, the late great soul jazz guitarist, whose music greatly influenced one of my current favorite bands, The New Mastersounds. The guys in the band say that, "Melvin has had a huge influence on the music of The New Mastersounds."

And now, fans of The New Mastersounds, and lovers of funky soul jazz get to hear marvelous music that may be new to their ears from a master guitarist who influenced lots of younger musicians, even though he was never super famous on his own.

Simon Allen, the drummer of The New Mastersounds, worked closely with Bill Carbone, drummer of Melvin Sparks' band, the venue and Sparks' family to turn a multitrack recording of a live show that had taken place at Nectar's in Burlington, VT at the end of 2010 into a special live vinyl LP—mixed and mastered by Eddie Roberts, The New Mastersounds' guitarist.

The fabulous result, Live at Nectar's, is now available on The New Mastersounds' own label, One Note Records.

Organist Beau Sasser and drummer Bill Carbone had been working with Sparks for several years and, despite the difference in age—they were in their early 30s, while the guitarist was an elder- statesmen of the genre—the unit was razor sharp.

The trio played the Burlington, VT club Nectar's regularly, but this evening featured two variables. Per the recommendation of the venue, they used The Grippo Horns, featuring Dave Grippo on alto saxophone and Brian McCarthy on tenor saxophone. This was the only time Sparks utilized a horn section in the last several years of his life. Additionally, they captured the performance on a multitrack recording. Both would prove to be wise decisions.

Lovingly mixed by guitarist, producer and Sparks' fanatic Eddie Roberts and curated for release by drummer Simon Allen, the album demonstrates that the 64-year old guitarist played as well in the final months of his life as at any other time.

From the opening "Miss Riverside" through rousing set-closer "Whip! Whop!," Sparks peppers his performance with quotes from jazz standards, pop songs and cartoon themes, all woven effortlessly into the bebop-funk dialect he helped create. He offers delectable melodies, patiently and methodically, through his lengthy lead on "Breezin,'" while delivering a slice of red hot boogaloo on "Fire Eater."

Sparks is audibly uplifted by The Grippo Horns helping him perform his 1973 arrangement of "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got)" for the first time in decades.

Texas-born, Melvin Sparks was an R&B guitarist at the outset of his career, backing Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye as a member of The Upsetters. He gave up his seat on The Upsetters' bus when a chance introduction to George Benson inspired him to relocate to New York City; a decision that would ultimately pave the way for his ascension into the soul jazz pantheon.

Sparks would go onto play and record with Lou Donaldson, Leon Spencer, Bernard Purdie, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Idris Muhammad, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland, Grover Washington Jr., Reuben Wilson and so many more. He'd also record nearly a dozen stand-out sessions as a leader.

Even when soul jazz experienced a downturn in commercial popularity in the '80s, Sparks stayed relevant with hip-hop artists sampling his work, which now totals more than 150 samples of his "funky chicken scratch."

Sparks' legacy is also heard in contemporary soul/funk bands like The New Mastersounds, Soulive and The Greyboy Allstars, all of whom he guested with several times before his far too early departure.

Every song on Live at Nectar's sounds superb. This is an impeccable live recording that brilliantly captures the master's gorgeous style of playing. His tone is captivating, irresistible, and joyful.

When the horns, organ, bass and drums start getting down—especially on high-energy tunes like "Whip! Whop!" and the cool cover version of "Thank You"—it all comes together. When you listen to Live at Nectar's it transports you to what must have been a magical night.

Good thing they recorded it, and thanks to his proteges for honoring his legacy with this remarkable record.

Track Listing: Miss Riverside; Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got); Fire Eater; Cranberry Sunshine; Breezin'; Whip! Whop!; Thank You; Hot Dog

Personnel: Melvin Spark: guitar; Bill Carbone: drums; Beau Sasser: organ; Brian McCarthy: tenor saxophone; Dave Grippo: alto saxophone

Title: Live at Nectar’s | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: One Note Records

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