Melvin Sparks ‘Live At Nectar’s’ LP/DIG (One Note) 4/5

Melvin Sparks (real name) was a Texan born jazz guitarist who worked as sideman and session musician for many jazz luminaries from the 1960s onwards, including Lou Donaldson, Lonnie Smith and Reuben Wilson, but it was his solo albums as bandleader from 1970 to 1975 that caught the attention of the jazz public, including during the later ‘rare groove’ frenzy in the UK. But during his most productive era, Melvin released three albums on Prestige: ‘Sparks’ (1970), ‘Spark Plug’ (1971) and Akilah! (1972), before moving to Detroit’s Westbound label for two further successful albums, the very in demand ‘Texas Twister’ (1973) and ‘Melvin Sparks 75’ in 1975.
This release on One Note Records features an unreleased live recording from December 2010 at Nectar, a small venue in Burlington, Vermont, not far from the eastern Canadian border, for what would be one of his final performances before his untimely death in March 2011. This six piece set stays firmly within the soul/jazz sound that he was known with all tracks being quite uptempo. His band at the time consisted of a relatively young group that included Beau Sasser on organ and Bill Carbone on drums, which was his usual trio lineup, but for this performance, Melvin was joined by Dave Grippo on alto sax and Brian McCarthy on tenor sax.

The performances themselves are all strong, with Bill Carbone style very much in the mould of Idris Muhammad, and Beau Sasser has obviously examined the funky Hammond players of the 60s and 70s and perfectly compliments Melvin – who was definitely the star of the show here, with both improvising throughout the performance. The additional sax parts didn’t over complicate things as they were effectively used to reinforce the guitar and Hammond elements, except for their extensive use on ‘Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got’, the Four Tops classic which Melvin covered on ‘Texas Twister’ and on the frantic ‘Whip! Whop!’ also featured on the same LP.

‘Cranberry Sunshine’ an original Melvin composition, provided Beau Sasser with a nice organ workout, and ‘Miss Riverside’, the first track on the album, kept the groove funky for a piece that was originally written by organist Leon Spencer, another Texan, and was initially included on Sonny Stitt’s 1971 album, ‘Turn It On!’ and featured the then 25-year old Melvin on guitar. The soulful ‘Breezin’ is the only laidback number of the set, but it’s still relatively funky, and takes its cue from the Gábor Szabó’s 1971 version rather than the later George Benson version, and helps showcase Melvin’s fluid and rhythmical playing style. My only gripe with the album was with ‘Fire Eater’, the famous Rusty Bryant composition, as it lacked the funky breakbeat drumming of the original, which is surely one of the funkiest Prestige records of all time. Nonetheless, the trio were otherwise excellent in their execution of this funk classic and the other songs.

Melvin was essentially a ‘groove’ player known more for his rhythmic playing style, but what he may have lacked in technique comparatively to some of his contemporaries such as Green, Szabó, Montgomery and Benson, he made up for with tons of funk, groove and feel. Melvin also made extensive use of the Hammond B3 on his albums, with the organ becoming intrinsically linked to his sound right up to the mid 70s. But After 1975, Melvin’s musical output reduced dramatically – as was the case with many jazz musicians of the time. The fusion era of Weather Report, Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra was taking over and the burgeoning disco scene promoted night clubs over live performance venues. But in Europe and especially the UK, funky jazz sounds were became popular after around 1987, with collectors scurrying to find original Blue Note and Prestige pressings by artists such as Melvin Sparks, and it’s musicians like this that the UK has a massive fondness for, including their influence on the Acid Jazz label and scene.

So this is not a recording of a musician towards the end of their career who is struggling to play. Melvin is keeping up with the young guys and you can hear his passion and energy throughout the set and thankfully this his final recording is worthy of his legacy.

Damian Wilkes