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Kicking Up Sparks
by George Robinson - Special to The Jewish Week
From The Jewish Week

Guitarist Tim Sparks has mastered both Sephardic and Ashkenazic idioms, which are a long way from his North Carolina roots.

The sound is as hushed and natural as breathing. It flows as easily as the air going into a pair of healthy lungs, swooping and gliding effortlessly.
    Tim Sparks is playing his steel-string 12-fret guitar.
    Sparks will bring that formidable talent and the guitar with which he practices it to the Center for Jewish History on Saturday night, and he will be surrounded by the cream of the downtown Jewish music mob, such as musicians Erik Friedlander and Mark Ribot. The fact that the concert is co-sponsored by the American Sephardic Foundation and YIVO, respectively the heavyweight doyens of Sephardi and Yiddish culture, give you some idea of the wide swath that Sparks cuts through the multiplicities of Jewish music.
    Which is sort of an odd career path for a guy whose grandmother played gospel piano.
    "I played straight ahead jazz in the 1980s," the 48-year-old Sparks said in a telephone interview from his home in Minneapolis last week. "I traveled all over Europe and developed an interest in the music I heard there, particularly Eastern European music. I started playing rhythm guitar with a lot of different accordion players, and that led me into klezmer groups. I got a lot of schooling, playing weddings and bar mitzvahs."
    He also became an integral part of the Voices of Sefarad, a Twin Cities band led by David Harris, which led Sparks into an intensive study of Sephardic folk songs.
    "Working with David I picked up a lot," he said. "I arranged four or five of Flory Jagoda's tunes for him, listened to a lot of rare field recordings that David had done, stuff that isn't easily available on record."
    At this point, John Zorn heard a recording Sparks had done, "Guitar Bazaar," which the guitarist describes as "a bunch of tunes in odd meters, a Balkan jazz thing." Zorn, always on the prowl for new ways of approaching Jewish musical traditions got in touch with Sparks and asked him to make a record for the Radical Jewish Culture series on the sax player's Tzadik label.
    Now there are three: "Neshamah," "Tanz" and Sparks's newest CD, "At the Rebbe's Table." Each is a seductive and sinuous exploration of traditional Jewish tunes, ranging from Naftule Brandwein standards like "Fun Tashlikh" to a Judeo-Kurdish song, "Hila Wasa."
    All of this is a far cry from where Sparks started. Born and raised in North Carolina, he took up the acoustic guitar as a child when he was bed-ridden with encephalitis, playing country blues and his grandma's gospel favorites by ear. He must have been pretty good even then because he won a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts and at age 11 was studying with one of Andres Segovia's protégés.
    Sparks observed that the line from Segovia to the Jewish music is actually a pretty straight one, in no small part derived from the musical cauldron that is the Mediterranean.
    Of course, Sefarad is the Hebrew word for Spain and most musicologists now believe that flamenco has its roots in Jewish and Gypsy music, so the connection is not too surprising.
    "The guitar and tunings that we know evolved in Spain for precisely those scales that are the heart of Jewish music. The "freygish" scale is one of those very Jewish scales that this instrument was designed for. So you can take a klezmer tune where there isn't a guitar tradition and it's amazing how well it comes together on guitar."
    Hence Sparks' delight in playing Naftule Brandwein.
    Perhaps not having a Jewish background and coming to the music after he had already mastered a dazzling range of other idioms, worked to Sparks' advantage.
    "I have a background in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic music," he said. As a result, he isn't tied too closely to one or the other, giving him a flexibility that some Jewish musicians have to work a lot harder for. It also adds to the fun for Sparks.
    "This is a project that's really satisfying to work on for a lot of reasons," he said. "A lot of cool things happen when you start working in Jewish music. It makes for an interesting program in tune with the whole idea of doing world music. The guitar is an instrument that is played everywhere in some form Spain, the Middle East and all over the Mediterranean and with the different Jewish communities of the diaspora you get a great diversity of tunes, but they share a common language."
    A language that Tim Sparks has mastered.

Tim Sparks will be performing at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.) on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For information, phone (917) 606-8200. His three CDs of Jewish music are available on the Tzadik label.


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