Raised in North Carolina, Sparks has retained a hint of drawl despite more than a quarter-century spent in Minneapolis, and he peppers his speech with '60s-era phrases like "Know what I'm saying?" and "freaked out." He's casual and unhurried but is usually doing something else as he talks--playing guitar, making coffee, or burning me a CD of a forthcoming album of solo-guitar treatments of John Zorn tunes split between him, Marc Ribot, and Bill Frisell.
"When I came back [from Europe]," he says while fiddling with his laptop, "I started investigating people I could play with, working mainly as an accompanist. I wanted to work as an accompanist in order to figure out how to play the music. So I was playing rhythm guitar; it was like starting all over."
For much of the '90s, Sparks was an ethnic-music journeyman, a regular at the Loring Bar and at weddings and parties around the Twin Cities. He played Brazilian music with Mandala, Persian music with Robayat, and Arabic music with Crossing Borders. Sparks, who isn't Jewish, received his apprenticeship in Jewish music with Marc Stillman's klezmer band and Voices of Sepharad, the music and dance ensemble dedicated to the music of the Sephardim, the far-flung Jews who trace their roots to Inquisition-era Spain.
Eventually Sparks's peripatetic jobbing became overwhelming. "I was playing in so many groups that I was just getting to the point of diminishing returns, plus it was just too much repertoire to keep together." After stepping back from the sideman market, Sparks began spending more time on the farm he and his wife Chyrll (who is part-owner of the gigantic country-music shindig We Fest) own near the northern Minnesota town of Frazee. Here he concentrated on writing solo-guitar arrangements of the diverse material he'd been playing. A friend encouraged Sparks to send some of his arrangements of klezmer and Sephardic tunes to Tzadik, known for its varied catalog of experimental and Jewish music. The demo impressed label honcho John Zorn, who has helped steer Sparks's Tzadik releases.
Considering that Sparks's albums bear such insider titles as At the Rebbe's Table and feature packaging adorned with Stars of David and quotes from theologian Martin Buber and Hassidic sage the Baal Shem Tov, listeners might be forgiven a certain surprise when they learn that Sparks's bio has gospel-singing grannies and white-lightning-peddling uncles standing in for cantor fathers and rabbi cousins.
"A friend of mine made a joke that he'd have to have a briss for me," says Sparks, but he adds that his non-Jewishness has been a non-issue, and he doesn't see anything presumptuous about his exploration of Jewish music. "It seems natural to play," he declares. "My understanding of this music comes from playing bar mitzvahs and weddings."
Sparks is generally a stranger to such gigs these days. He has managed to build enough of an audience to focus exclusively on concerts such as the upcoming Walker date, where he'll be joined by Rebbe's band of in-demand sidemen including Marc Ribot on nylon-string guitar, bassist Greg Cohen, cellist Erik Friedlander, and percussionist Cyro Baptista.
On the day of our interview, Sparks had been home from an American tour for only a few hours and was preparing to embark on his fourth Japanese tour later that evening. When I called for directions before our meeting, he seemed a bit disoriented and, in perfect wandering-minstrel fashion, had to step outside to remind himself of the street address. Later I asked how long he'd had the apartment. "Oh, two years or so," he answered. Sparks, it seems, is always just settling in.
His residence in the Jewish-music world is likely to be temporary; Sparks is a man of phases. He likes to immerse himself in something and then move on to the next thing as a more rounded fellow. Lately, his trips to Japan have inspired vague ideas about marrying Japanese music with the guitar sounds of southeastern Mexico. He may be onto something; the market for classically trained, Southern-bred, Hispano-Japanese fingerstyle guitarists appears to be wide open.