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TIM SPARKS

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String Being
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Globe-trotting Minnesota guitarist Tim Sparks releases two divergent solo CDs
by John Bream

Published Friday, November 19, 1999
Sparks' acoustic guitar fits in any setting 'round the world

What was acoustic guitar ace TimSparks doing the other night on KQRS Radio, bastion of classic rock? After DJ Mei Young called him a "super bad-ass guitar player," he told a story about how, on a recent tour in Amsterdam, he'd mistakenly eaten a drug-laced "space cake" (he'd asked for spice cake), inspiring a tune called "The Amsterdam Cakewalk." That tale brought yuks all around the KQ studio during the weekly local-music program "Homegrown." Then, without missing a beat, the Minnesota guitarist plucked a quiet but mesmerizing instrumental.
    Sparks manages to make his guitar fit in just about any setting. He recently recorded an album of traditional Jewish music in a video-editing studio in Detroit Lakes, Minn. Then he went to Germany to record an album of twangy blues songs written in Mexico. And last month he went to Japan to perform tunes from both CDs.
    Saturday, he will celebrate the release of the two discs -- "Neshamah" and "One String Leads to Another" -- with a concert at the Cedar Cultural Centre in Minneapolis.
    "There's a connection between the two albums, but they're different; that's why I can tout them at the same time," Sparks said.
    There's certainly a link in his spiritual approach and soulful performance. But on a more literal level, it's what Sparks calls the "blue notes" -- the way he bends the steel strings on his guitar. Two years ago, he rediscovered those blue notes on a 1954 Martin guitar that had been tucked away in the attic because it needed repairs. While packing to move, he decided to fix the guitar, which he had used extensively in the late 1970s and '80s with the popular Twin Cities jazz group Rio Nido. The instrument turned out to be the ideal lightweight companion for a trip to Mexico.
    After immersing himself for several years in the music of Eastern Europe and the Middle East (check out 1993's "Balkan Dreams" and 1995's "Guitar Bazaar"), Sparks found himself exploring the "American sounds" of his native North Carolina during his month in Mexico. But he cross-pollinated them with sounds from around the world, winding up with tunes such as "Cornbread and Baklava."
    "I digest music, but I also digest cultural things," Sparks said over drinks. "Once I was taking a lesson from a Persian musician and I asked, 'How do I learn to play Persian music?' -- which at the time was very mysterious to me. He said, 'Look at carpets.' Culture has an architecture in it, and you get it in the food or the music or the language."

 A MUSICAL JOURNEY

The globe-trotting Sparks, 45, who lives in Frazee in northern Minnesota, is full of tales of cultural encounters in Japan, where he performed nine concerts last month with Isato Nakagawa ("the Leo Kottke of Japan," whom he'd met at a guitar festival in Germany) and Peter Finger (the German guitarist for whose label Sparks records). He talked about eating sushi (the "hot dog of Japan"), riding with white-gloved taxi drivers and marveling at the nighttime neon cityscapes. The audiences were receptive to his music, buying CDs at $30 apiece and receiving his autograph rendered with Japanese characters.
    The "Neshamah" disc (it means "soul") was Sparks' realization of an old concept he'd originally envisioned as "A Boat from Persia," in which he'd start musically in the Middle East and move on to Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and, eventually, the United States. New York avant-garde composer John Zorn heard "Guitar Bazaar" and asked Sparks to contribute to a series of Jewish-focused discs on Zorn's label, Tzadik. The Minnesotan used Jewish music as a motif, tracing it through Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and the Americas. He'd known many of the tunes from playing in Twin Cities Jewish groups, including Voices of Sepharad and Mark Stillman's wedding band.
    What would Sparks call this music he's created?
    "It's kind of an orphan genre. It's not jazz, and it's not classical. It's kind of a new thing. It's got a sophistication that I think is as sophisticated as classical guitar, but a lot of classical guitarists won't listen to it because it's steel-string [not nylon] guitar, and I bend notes. In Japan, that's really terrible, apparently. The classical guitarists don't even want to know about you."
    Still, the orphan found a home in Japan -- and elsewhere.

© Copyright 1999 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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