To begin this story, we first must ask: What the hell is acid jazz?
Well, here’s a quick history lesson in what it’s not: Toward the end of saxophonist John Coltrane’s life in the mid-1960s, the jazz icon reportedly started taking copious amounts of LSD — a move he saw as consistent with furthering his understanding of music and his vision of God.
In 1965, one year following the release of his consensus master work, A Love Supreme, Coltrane entered the studio to record Om, an album consisting of a single sprawling track recorded while the entire band was supposedly soaring with Lucy in the Sky.
Needless to say, Om (described by one Coltrane junkie as “just plain scary”) met with mixed reviews. And while there’s some documented history of jazz musicians augmenting their groove with what many Americans understand as “acid,” nothing could be further from what the acid-jazz genre actually embodies.
“It’s just a funky jazz,” reveals real live acid-jazz pioneer Melvin Sparks, an underground legend guitarist who’s easily more obscure in the American consciousness than the very genre he helped mold in the late ’60s and ’70s.
“The term back then,” Sparks reminds us, “was ‘fusion.’
“It was fused between the James Brown funk and the bebop jazz,” he explains.
Sparks further notes that “acid jazz” was more of a European term, while “soul jazz” is the preferred moniker in the States.
So, maybe the next question is: Who the hell is Melvin Sparks?
Well, for starters, he’s an accomplished, but wholly underrated, lifelong disciple of jazz guitar (once described as a “musician’s musician’s musician”), one whose fluid jazz-funk style recalls some better-known players swimming today in the endless ponds of both jazz and jam. A few of those names might ring a bell: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Soulive, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Charlie Hunter, and even Galactic. These are your modern acid-jazz purveyors, which is just to say: They’re all funky jazz dudes.
And every one of them owes Sparks a bit of thanks for laying foundations to the funky high rise they now call home.
Many of those players, especially Karl Denson (both now, and with his Tiny Universe precursor, the Greyboy Allstars), do, in fact, give Sparks his due. He’s shared the stage in recent years with all of the above jammers — not to mention, in his younger years, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder. The former Blue Note session man also played with Little Richard’s backing band, the Upsetters, back in the ’60s.
And now — after many years removed from the soul-jazz ethos — Sparks finds himself right back where he started, with some of the cleanest, grooviest licks of his career safely in tow.
“It’s a blessing for me,” muses Sparks. “We didn’t have a market like that. I guess I fit in. I remember when I first met the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson, they invited me to play. And I said, ‘What y’all gonna do?’ They told me, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ that I knew all the songs … they played all songs I had recorded.”
Ironically, though, the guitarist now struggles to find an available loft in his own reopened building. Sparks’ latest record, last year’s It Is What It Is (Savant), is his second release since re-dedicating himself to his roots calling back in 2001, and there’s yet another record on its way this spring. He tours now with a trio of guitar, organ and drums (though, sadly, absent the sax that characterizes his recorded work, and the genre in general).
You see, after soul jazz took a dip in the late ’70s with the influx of disco (further sinking in the even tackier ’80s), the guitarist did less session work and pursued other paths. He worked for a while with the Melvin Sparks Blues Band, playing weddings and other club gigs around Connecticut.
“Believe it or not, I was actually doing a little better then than I’m doing now,” points out Sparks, who turns 60 next year. “Now, the reason why I say that like that: After discovering this [resurgence of soul jazz], it’s really a rebuilding process. Even though people may know me … you still have to work it and build it back up.”
The Melvin Sparks Band plays an intimate gig at the aptly named Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva (628 E. Main St.) Tuesday, Feb. 1. Tickets are $10 ($8/advance). 8 p.m. 596-1717. (Only 50 tickets will be sold, so call before you haul.)