About a Goy

Polyglot guitarist (and former Bar Mitzvah session man) Tim Sparks pulls a chair up to the rebbe's table

Tim Sparks isn't a Folgers kind of a guy--a fact that fills me with a certain amount of dread. He's a globetrotter, a guitar-wielding adventurer, an inveterate hippie. I'm the kind of guy who doesn't like coffee but has trouble saying no to people he's just met. As I watch him prepare some brew and search for the Lee Press-Ons he uses to replace his picking hand's battered nails, I begin to suspect he's also a fan of the sort of thick, exotic coffee that will require a lot of sugar. Not the cheap, bland stuff I can stomach. Tim Sparks offers to make enough coffee for both of us. This isn't going well.

We retire to the living room, where I sip my cup of muddy, heavily sweetened Turkish coffee while Sparks does his nails (not interesting), and eventually picks up his guitar (interesting). The Bryn Mawr apartment is of the sort ZZ Top had in mind when they wrote "Groovy Little Hippie Pad"--cozy, dimly lit, crammed with modest antiques draped with Turkish fabrics--and the living room is its sweet spot. Sparks sits in the proper posture of a classical guitarist, not hunched or slouchy like a rocker, but poised, prepared. He's short, mustachioed, slightly chunky, and dressed in dark, loose-fitting knockabout clothes. He holds the neck of his acoustic steel-string so it angles toward the ceiling, just like Andrés Segovia, who once taught him in a master class.

Behind him are framed emblems of his roots and interests: a painting of an obscure blues singer by North Carolina outsider artist Benny Carter; a faded Bob Marley poster, a black-and-white photo of local blues-rock legend Willie Murphy beaming in the back seat of a convertible. Languishing in the corner is an oud (the Arabic ancestor of the lute), an instrument Sparks explored for a few years in the '90s but has pretty much given up. "I decided I could either be a mediocre oud player or do some interesting guitar music," he explains.

While his oud gently weeps, Sparks plays a tune off At the Rebbe's Table, his third album of Jewish music recorded for Tzadik Records, the hip New York label headed by composer John Zorn. For any guitar player whose progress stalled somewhere around "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" or the intro to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," watching Tim Sparks play guitar is a bit disheartening. His relaxed virtuosity reminds you that, barring some kind of Robert Johnson-style crossroad agreement with the devil, you'll never be anywhere near as good. It doesn't help that Sparks shows no signs of a biological leg-up, like Rachmaninoff's titanic hands, and I become fixed on his squat arms (he uses a custom-designed, short-necked guitar to compensate) and stubby fingers (Sparks likens them to pickles).

I'm encouraged when he at least has the decency to watch the fretboard as he executes fluid, classically precise runs--he still has to think about it a bit, it seems. But later, he casually chats while doing that two-guitarists-for-the-price-of-one thing associated with "fingerstyle" guitarists such as John Fahey and Joseph Spence, simultaneously playing roaming basslines and tricky melodies and chords. "Fingerstyle guitar is like juggling," Sparks says. Perhaps, but I've never been particularly jealous of a juggler.

After finishing "Tartar Dance," one of the tunes Sparks will feature Saturday, November 23 at the Walker Art Center, the guitarist seems to be a bit impressed himself. He's played the snaky, multi-part dance to demonstrate how he retools the harmonies of klezmer-Goliath Naftule Brandwein. "That's pretty good re-harmonization, I think," he says, laughing with slightly sheepish pride.

In Cameron Crowe's hokey movie Almost Famous, a busload of allegedly hard-rockin' musicians, crew members, and hangers-on form an ad hoc choir for a unifying rendition of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." Sparks apparently does not go in for such picaresque bonding. According to vocalist Prudence Johnson, with whom Sparks played with in the retro-jazz group Rio Nido during the '70s and '80s, he preferred to spend van time listening to tapes of the Koran in order to teach himself Arabic. "We'd be on road trips, and he'd spend the whole time under the headphones, sort of speaking along for hours," Johnson recalls, still a bit amused.

Sparks admits that he never got far in his efforts to read the words of Mohammed in the original tongue, but his subsequent attempts at globally minded study have been quite fruitful. After Rio Nido disbanded in 1987, Sparks went looking for a change of direction, and he found inspiration on a trip through Europe. He was smitten by Balkan music while traveling in the former Yugoslavia, and he grew increasingly curious about world music in general.

Sparks explains his entrée into the ethnic-music scene and his approach to music in alternately technical, metaphorical, and slangy terms. An occasional guitar teacher who has made a guitar-instruction video, Sparks lights up when the discussion moves toward music theory, illustrating some of his favorite scales on guitar, and explaining how the scales stand pat or mutate in the trip from, say, Morocco to Bosnia. As often, though, he favors abstractions--talking about the "color" of music, and the "architecture" of arrangements. And then sometimes he just gushes ("I [saw] them dancing to this shit and it blew my mind," he says of his Yugoslavian epiphany).

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.

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