Guitarist Tim Sparks keeps the world at his fingertips in uniting klezmer, the blues, and beyond


There exist two plainly defined camps into which the guitar virtuosi of this world separate. Both camps share the same traits, more or less: chops, superb chordal vocabulary, musicality always in service to the song or, really, to the music, and narrow devotion to one form of the instrument’s many variants. What they do not have in common is the purpose. Camp No. 1 is for acrobats and dazzlers, albeit brilliance for its own sake, with a prodigy’s knack for stage flair, all to gussy-up a complex arrangement of two Beatles songs finger-tapped simultaneously. The other, Camp No. 2, holds the dedicated world musicologists who deftly adapt the music of distinct cultures and moves them inside a wooden box with six wire strings. Thus, we meet Tim Sparks. Few follow their own path, disregarding trends so fervently, as North Carolina-born Sparks.

As a fingerstyle guitarist, Sparks is unsurpassed and his Piedmont-style blues playing would be enough, with its ecstatic flow and warm melodic humor. Sparks shows superb intelligence without drifting out of bounds on an evergreen like Willie Brown’s “Mississippi Blues,” flowing into piano rag territory, layering complexity at every turn. For his current focus, however, Sparks shifted his sights to Eastern Europe and the traditional klezmer music, the passionate soundtrack to, as he puts it, the “Jewish diaspora.”

Yet one wouldn’t readily associate the fingerstyle guitar with a style in which the clarinet and violin are time-honored lead voices. Sparks’ curiosity and adaptivity as a musician helped in absorbing and then conveying these new forms into his approach.

“I played like lounge-lizard, straight-ahead jazz and R&B for many years. In 1987, I went on a long trip to Europe with my wife. Part of it involved traveling to Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia. I encountered a lot of music that was really exotic to my ears. I’d always been curious about Eastern European music,” Sparks tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “After returning from Europe, I started looking for opportunities to learn this exotic style and wound up playing with klezmer bands, lots of weddings, also bellydance gigs. I was playing oud and saz in addition to guitar, and this helped me acquire a feel for the Middle-Eastern melodic sensibility.”

The oud and saz are two Middle Eastern lutes, both difficult to play, but adapting their indigenous scales to the guitar seemed a natural path for Sparks. But again, as the premier instrument of the blues, the guitar can be made to house just about any instrument. No less than the legendary Jerry Wexler, founder of Atlantic Records, believed that the blues is essentially a Hebraic form, and shows similarities with the music of other far-flung cultures. It is a theory to which Sparks readily adheres, pointing out that the blues and klezmer overlap with common “harmonic territory,” including plenty of dominant seven-chord colorings.

“What I mean is, you can look at music as having three basic chords; this is the way Joe Pass explained it. The three basic chords are major, minor and dominant seven. Most songs resolve either to major or minor, but some music, like blues or klezmer, doesn’t really resolve but vibrates in this seventh-chord state of stimulation,” explains Sparks, of the technical and cultural kinship between forms. “It comes from so many places in the world and touches so many different threads — the Middle East, Latin America, jazz, the Mediterranean. All these threads are related. They are intimately part of the way the guitar is tuned, coming out of the Jewish-Gypsy heritage in Spain.”

Tim Sparks’ approach has proved its point throughout his career. His jazz stylings have earned him arts fellowships and scholar status in the musicologist world. While his performing skills have placed him on stages with headliners as diverse as Dolly Parton and Bill Frisell, along with performances at major folk festivals, the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention, and A Prairie Home Companion. Sparks is also one of the few multiple collaborators with jazz/new music iconoclast and maverick John Zorn.

This will be the second concert in the Avant Music Series, the brainchild of local cultural polymath Keith Marks. At the inaugural Avant concert last month, pianist Uri Caine performed to a packed house at the Main Library’s Hicks Auditorium. This Sunday’s Sparks concert is certain to once again attract adventurous musicians and music lovers alike. “The Avant Series serves to bring dynamic music that defies genre, to find musicians who are trained in myriad styles and genres, but refuse to let themselves be defined by one,” explains Marks. “Tim Sparks exemplifies that. He is a virtuoso at his craft.”

Tim Sparks both defies and defines genres … and that’s a seriously neat trick.

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