What You See Is What You Get – Melvin Sparks Band
Nectar Recordings 20021
With acid jazz all the rage, it's only fair that one of the genre's early
torchbearers receive the credit he's due. With What You Hear Is What You
Get, Melvin Sparks and his Melvin Sparks Band stake a convincing claim
that the Texas-born guitarist is not only a godfather of the movement, but
also an evolving, vital cog in the 21st century acid jazz machine.
It's only Sparks' eighth solo release – he first played as a sideman on more
than 150 records – but he shines as a bandleader nonetheless. His two
featured guests here are old Blue Note compadre Ruben Wilson (B3 organ) and
Topaz, whose tenor sax is blazing a trail in the modern-day acid-jazz scene,
which shares a border with the ever-growing, ever-blurring boundaries of the
jamband movement. Those selections of players alone show that Sparks honors
his roots while expanding his horizons.
"Another Joe" opens the album with relentless funk, led by George
Papageorge's throaty B-3 organ. In the jazz tradition, solos are passed from
alto sax player Joe Hrbek, to Sparks and on to Papageorge, who tears holes
into the arrangement with his sharp yet smooth playing. Soon after, Sparks
cops the organ riff and then solos in thick, clear tones, while Hrbek riffs
away with glee.
The title track follows, and its more dirty funk, reminiscent of Karl
Denson, or should we say Denson is reminiscent of Sparks? Regardless,
despite its adventurousness, the tune is melodic and accessible, with
Sparks' rhythm guitar and Hrbek's smooth leads providing most of the
foreground work. Sparks solos again, chases the melody around corners, peeks
into the darkness, but never goes for the cheap, easy kill. No
tension-and-release gimmickry. Just sensitive, gorgeous playing.
It'd be presumptuous to say Medeski, Martin and Wood, Charlie Hunter, Karl
Denson, etc. owe much of their sound to Sparks. All of those acts are
notoriously omnivorous when it comes to influences (Hunter, for example, is
a guitarist who credits organ players, Motown and rap artists as
inspiration). So who's to say what comes from whom? But, it's a good bet
that some of those old Blue Note records with Sparks' tasteful playing – and
maybe this record as well – are in the collections of the above mentioned
And it wouldn't be a surprise if Sparks owned their works as well,
considering his refusal to become a dinosaur and penchant for pushing the
Topaz shines on "The Governor", "Funky Good Time", and "Money", and although
he – or Sparks, or anyone else in the group – has the chops to steal the
spotlight, it's all about the groupmind. The band is tight, and it's a true
jamband; at times its playing sounds like one glorious instrument.
What You Hear Is What You Get is a poignant release, a nine-track offering
that combines a live feel with studio polish. If you like the jazz fringes
on the jamband spectrum, this disc comes highly recommended.