Review: Melvin Sparks still shines on ‘Live at Nectar’s’

Melvin Sparks

Melvin Sparks’ magical night recorded just before his death is “Live at Nectar’s.”

Melvin Sparks has a legacy that will forever burn bright in the canon of funk and jazz artists. Sparks died in 2011 at the age of 64, but the release of “Live at Nectar’s” by One Note Records’ reveals that the guitarist was shining his musical light nice and bright until the very end.

The album was recorded at the famed Burlington, Vermont, club on Dec. 30, 2010, mere months before his passing in March. The night proved to be a  magical occasion that saw Sparks continue to keep the music fresh and vital. In addition to his band of young bucks in organist Beau Sasser and drummer Will Carbone, musicians he had been playing and touring with for years, he invited The Grippo Horns featuring Dave Grippo on alto sax and Brian McCarthy to sit in with the trio that night. It was the only time Sparks used a horn section in his final years of his playing. Whatever it was that went through Sparks’ mind leading him to add some brass tacks to the stage proved to be serendipitous because the five musicians that night turned out a brilliant performance.

“My name is Melvin Sparks on guitar,” are the first words you hear when “Live at Nectar’s” emanates from the speakers. What follows is 45 minutes of musical excellence as Sparks and his crack band lay out all the reasons why the legend is so influential. After the modest introduction, the band leans right into the boogaloo bounce of “Miss Riverside.” It’s a jovial number that Carbone lays directly in the pocket so Sparks can warm up the audience with some soulful shredding, eventually passing the torch onto Sasser and his complementary organ.

The Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)’ is turned from a sultry R&B ballad into a headstrong funk groove after the band gets its hands on it. If there is a number that proves the worth of The Grippo Horns that night, it’s this one. Grippo and McCarthy lead the charge with their passionate and dazzling playing. From the hook to the solos they just go to town on the song and Sparks and the rest of the band are happy to support them.

However, it is Sparks who takes the lead on the next sizzler, “Fire Eater.” The whole song is essentially one big solo from the guitarist and he flits around the instrument with the type of quick-witted playing on which he built his legacy. His personality comes through as he jumps from gymnastic lines to peppering in pop songs to spiraling around the frets like a pinwheel. It’s a performance you can put in your jeans to pull out like a pocket Bible whenever you need to be reminded of the power and glory of Sparks.

His divinity really shines on the beautiful “Breezin’,” which is musical bliss in its highest form. Sparks glides through the track with a delicate coolness that reveals itself in the atmospheric tone of his guitar. It sounds like there isn’t a care on his mind and his playing is as light and airy as the title. When you think of Sparks’ spirit floating off through the clouds and way beyond the blue, this is what it sounds like.

His absence elicits feelings of sadness but you can only be uplifted and overjoyed when you hear “Live At Nectar’s.” We lost a great one in Melvin Sparks, but he always will be with us when we turn on his music and let him play. Damn, he could play.

-Garrett Bethmann

  • Melvin Sparks
    ‘Live at Nectar’s
    Label: Blue Note Records
    Release: April 28, 2017

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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