A Guitarist’s Jewish Sparks


It is a cliché to say that music can change someone’s view of the world. But in the case of guitarist Tim Sparks, it’s true.

Sparks, who will be performing at The Stone on June 14, grew up in North Carolina where he was “exposed to a lot of heavy-duty Southern Baptist culture,” he said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Minneapolis. “I’ve spent most of my life trying to work my way out of that.”

His passport to a wider worldview was his guitar.

“I started playing at 11,” he recalled. “I had some uncles and my grandma — they showed me this and that, but I was pretty much self-taught. Then I had a unique experience at 14 when I received a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts. They had an arts curriculum but they also met the state academic curricular standards. And I got to study with two great [classical] guitarists, Javier Calderon and Jesus Silva.”

It was the kind of place where Andres Segovia did guest master classes.

“That put me in a sharp left turn from blues and country, put me in a whole other tradition, particularly Latin American guitar music,” the 57-year-old Sparks said.

In a very roundabout way, the experience led him to Jewish music, which has become his calling card, leading to four outstanding CDs on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

How do you get from classical guitar to transcriptions of Naftule Brandwein?

Sparks fell easily into the life of a working jazz musician in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He also had an abiding interest in European music that was fueled by a long vacation that took the guitarist and his wife all over the continent. When he came back, he knew that he wanted to explore the ethnic music he’d heard, and he began working with two of the Twin Cities’ more active accordionists, Morrie Bernstein and Mark Stillman, playing the usual round of bar mitzvahs and weddings.

It was the perfect situation: he was immersing himself in music he wanted to learn and getting paid for doing it. John Zorn heard about what he was doing and invited him to make a solo recording for Tzadik, and things just took off from there.

“It’s great using Jewish music as an organizing motif for my repertoire,” Sparks said. “It’s inherent in the nature of the Jewish diaspora; it comes from so many places in the world and touches so many different threads — the Middle East, Latin America, jazz, the Mediterranean. All these threads are related. [In turn,] they are intimately part of the way the guitar is tuned, coming out of its heritage in Spain.”

Sparks is one of those artists whose creative flair doesn’t require the kind of tunnel vision that blinds him to everything but his art. On the contrary, as he became interested in Jewish music, he immersed himself in Jewish texts as well, and that is where the life-changing element comes in.

“I read a lot and get involved in whatever project I’m doing,” he said. “I started reading the Tanach, [philospher Martin] Buber’s collection of chasidic tales, and I went on from there. In the last 10 years I’m seeing Judaism as the core that Islam and Christianity added on to. [That realization] was part of the process of breaking with the Christianity I grew up with, which is very absolutist and intolerant. It’s very liberating.”

Reading Kabbalah as a system of Jewish ethics rather than a trendy New Age accessory, and working with a wide range of Jewish artists that runs from the downtown circle that Zorn has accumulated to guitarist Rabbi Joe Black, Sparks has come to believe passionately in the importance of connecting with others as part of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. That’s probably not something you could pick up in music school.

“I’m a much better person for it,” he concluded. “I’m touched by how my music is accepted by Jewish people. It means so much to me that my music touches people in a meaningful way.”

Tim Sparks will perform music from his Tzadik recordings on Monday, June 14 at The Stone (Avenue C and Second Sreet), 7 p.m.; his set will be followed by a seminar on the materials and techniques he brings to this material. For information, go to www.thestonenyc.com.

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