Bobby Sparks II ‘Paranoia’ 3LP/2CD (Leopard) 4/5

‘Paranoia’ is the new album release from keyboardist and producer Bobby Sparks II released through Leopard Records.

Now a fully-fledged solo artist in his own right, Sparks’ lengthy career to date has bestowed innumerable successes and accolades to his name – as an in-demand session musician and collaborator, Sparks has recorded with some of the most revered names in contemporary soul and jazz including Lalah Hathaway, Stephanie McKay and Dianne Reeves; Further, Sparks served as a key member of the neo-soul and jazz-funk inspired side project by the late, great Roy Hargrove – The RH Factor – having appeared on both full-length albums, ‘Hard Groove’ (2003) and ‘Distractions’ (2006), as well as the intermediary EP ‘Strength’ (2004). And then of course there’s the matter of the Texan jazz fusion, Grammy-winning collective, Snarky Puppy, of which Sparks has found himself an original member of alongside band members that have also gone on to achieve staggering solo successes including Michael League, Bill Laurance and Robert “Sput” Searight.

The extension of Sparks’ work with Snarky Puppy to that of his solo material is very much a continuation of that notion of musical fusion equalling musical freedom. Even through Sparks’ debut album ‘Schizophrenia: The Yang Project’ (2019) encapsulated vastly different genres and styles – predominantly geared more towards funk and soul – ‘Paranoia’ significantly builds upon these concepts seeking to steer Sparks’ music towards an even grander, all encompassing sonic palette.

You could definitely never call Sparks short on ideas – as with this album’s predecessor, the somewhat grandiose vision for ‘Paranoia’ finds itself encapsulating a whopping 25 tracks at two hours and twenty minutes which is a phenomenal target for a single full-length studio release. Initially conceived as something of a “funk opera”, tracks on the album really run a bold gamut with Sparks’ tackling R&B, soul, funk, jazz, gospel, blues, hip-hop, Indian and orchestral scores in a vastly ambitious project.

Dedicated to the memory of his father, Bobby Sparks Sr’s touch is present throughout the album as are a variety of Sparks’ influences which are openly laid out for display throughout ‘Paranoia’. A string-laden cover of Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ features vocals by Chris Walker; the George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic, shout via the track ‘Horny Dreams’, and there’s more than just a nod towards The Purple Majesty that is Prince, firstly, via an eight-minute funk workout of ‘D.M.S.R.’ and then a cover of ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ featuring Lizz Wright’s smokey vocals. The track ‘Jaime Starr’, despite featuring a minor rearrangement of the “a” and the “i” in “Jaime”, might have suggested a third Prince tribute – paying homage to one of Prince’s more prominent alter egos – but seems to draw inspiration elsewhere than the 80s era the name was synonymous with.

Again, that revolving door of artists and musicians for this album continues in the Snarky Puppy tradition – an epic line-up of names including Snarky Puppy members League, Jason ‘JT’ Thomas and Mark Lettier feature alongside established luminaries like Chris Potter, Gregoire Maret and Keith Anderson, all striving to realise Bobby Sparks’ epic and expansive vision for this album. A project that serves just as much as a celebration of black pride as it is a well-constructed musical experiment, ‘Paranoia’ sees Bobby Sparks continue his quest to create singular soundscapes from an unhindered and boundary-less well of ideas and creativity.

Imran Mirza