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In the Spotlight
The multi-cultural guitar of Tim Sparks
Originally from an article in Akustik Gitarre
German text by Andreas Schulz
Translated and edited by Steve Elliott

"When you play guitar, you follow a single path that goes round the whole world. All musical cultures have stringed instruments."
    Tim Sparks is something of a musical globetrotter. He returns from his travels with a bag full of musical souvenirs, which he then turns into highly imaginative guitar instrumentals. His latest journeys have found him delving into Jewish music.
    Sparks' early CD's built his reputation as one of the world's leading fingerstylists, afraid of nothing and conqueror of new territories for the acoustic guitar. His first solo CD, "The Nutcracker Suite", included an extraordinary adaptation of that famous orchestral piece for classical guitar and Sparks promptly won the 1993 National Fingerpicking championship. The other piece on the CD, "The Balkan Dreams Suite" displays his affinity for the music of the Middle East.
    Sparks consolidated his love for this music in his next CD, "Guitar Bazaar", a work which carried the subtitle, "Multi cultural ideas for guitar." The basis for these pieces were a collection of Hungarian folk songs originally arranged by Bela Bartok. Tim Sparks complemented this material with Celtic, Oriental, Jazz and Blues figures. His third album, "One String Leads To Another" saw Sparks returning to his North Carolina roots, although his ethno, multi-cultural approach is not entirely forgotten. The mood of this recording is decidedly eclectic and moves between country-tinged, bluesy offerings and Balkan dance music. This apparent mish-mash is always held together by Sparks' dazzling virtuosity and far-ranging musical imagination.
    The aforementioned CD's appear on the Acoustic Music Records label, while his last two albums, "Neshamah" and the outstanding tour de force that is the new CD, "Tanz" came out on the Tzadik label.
    On both "Tanz" and "Neshamah", Sparks moves his attention to the rich musical heritage of the Jewish diaspora.
    "I am often asked, " says Sparks, "why someone from North Carolina plays Jewish music. Well, it started with me playing rhythm guitar with two accordionists. We played at many Jewish weddings which helped me learn a lot about this musical heritage. Another influence was the Bosnian singer and guitarist, Flory Jagoda. Her playing is very subtle and lyrical and it really was a great experience to play a gig with her at The Center for Jewish History in New York."
    The final impetus came from John Zorn, a New York musician and producer, who suggested recording traditional Jewish music in Tim's inimitable ethno-jazz style.
    Says Sparks, "'Neshamah' uses Jewish music as a motif, which I blended with influences from the Near and Middle east, North Africa, Spain and America. This project afforded me the perfect opportunity for lyrical chord and harmonic development. I had many ideas kicking round from my adaptations of Bartok and Tschaikovsky, plus others from Jazz harmony. You'll hear Country Blues and Flamenco sounds, but above all the vocabulary of Middle Eastern instruments such as the Oud. John Zorn encouraged me to play freely and to use some quite crazy ideas in the improvisations."
    The high point so far in Sparks' ethnic excursions is "Tanz". Here he expertly accompanied by percussionist, Cyro Baptista, and bassist, Greg Cohen. "Tanz" is a fantastically stimulating work in which Sparks utilises a dazzling array of guitaristic possibilities and once again displays his mastery of odd rhythms and time signatures, such as 7/8.
    "The recordings for "Tanz" were extremely intensive. I arrived in New York for the session on a Friday, we rehearsed on Saturday, played a gig that evening and then recorded the entire CD on the Sunday. Greg and Cyrano were completed focused and immersed in the music. Both are not only awesome musicians, they are nice guys too."
    Sparks chose the tunes for "Tanz" in order to offer the best possible expressive opportunities for the guitar. The original tunes would have been played on instruments like the clarinet, oud or violin, but in Sparks' hands the translation to guitar is seamless and virtually perfect. Of course, this is only possible with incredible technique and great musical sensibility, both of which Tim Sparks has in spades.

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