September 30, 2007

Interview with Tim Sparks

National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion.

Minnesota Guitar Wizard.

Tim Sparks' musical accomplishments are as many as they are varied.

His passion and dedication to his craft can be seen throughout his career: a mastery of jazz styles honed while playing in Rio Nido, a return to his classical studies for his award-winning arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite for guitar, and his important contributions to the stage of world music – including his interpretations of Jewish music on three releases for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

One can’t underestimate the influence of the country blues and gospel that surrounded him as a child in North Carolina either; or the classic jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Scott Joplin that captivated his attention while studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

On a technical level Sparks is a guitarist’s guitarist. Leo Kottke considers himself one of Sparks’ biggest fans. He’s also a brilliant composer, arranger, teacher, and performer. If you haven’t seen one of his shows, do yourself a favor and make some space on your calendar…and prepare to be amazed.

Recently released by TrueFire and Acoustic Guitar Workshop, Roots, Rags & Blues is an interactive lesson series on CD-ROM featuring Tim Sparks. We announced this release back in August here on the blog, and promised an interview with Tim in early September.
Here it is…

Your musical oeuvre covers a lot of ground. You can certainly hear the influence of American roots music, Jewish music from around the world, and 20th century composers like Bartok. What compels (or propels) you in a given direction?

Curiosity…plus a convergence of emotional and intellectual richness in a piece of music. The mind can get bored with something, which the heart will never tire of. What is a happy medium? Those are the "timeless" things, I think.

Given the breadth of influence in your work, what do you find yourself listening to?

Currently in my Itunes player…
Bassekou Kouyate (West African Ngoni virtuoso)
Three different versions of Herbie Hancock's composition Dolphin Dance by Bill Evans, Slide Hampton, and guitarist Jamie Findley (respectively)
Roland Dyens
Buddy Emmons and Lenny Breau
Jacob do Bandolim
Charlie Parker
Uri Caine and Jamie Saft on Tzadik
Mule Variations, by Tom Waits

(I've been arranging some of those Waits and John Zorn tunes for guitar lately.)

Looking at your calendar, I see that you are performing some dates with your jazz group Rio Nido. How has it been re-exploring that territory?

Fun! I can hardly remember anything from the 70's but all of those songs, the lyrics, harmonies and guitar parts came back like we never stopped playing for 25 years. Like nothing is ever erased from your hard drive.

As a departure from your solo instrumental work, or even small ensemble instrumental work, how do you like performing in a group that is very vocally centered? (I think that a lot of fans are happy to have the Rio Nido albums re-released on CD.)

It's way easier than my solo guitar repertoire and therefore loose and fun. We have a lot of laughs.

Recently, we posted a couple of blog entries regarding your new set of guitar lessons offered on CD-ROM – Roots, Rags & Blues. In the past you had released a video based lesson – Guitar Bazaar: Multi-cultural Ideas for Fingerstyle Guitar – as well as some live concert videos. As a teacher, what did you find to be the strengths of this new approach?

Well, you get a lot of bang for your buck. There are seven tunes taught in detail and you can stop and start, rewind etc. The tabs and notation are included. There are extensive notes on performance, the history, and background of each tune plus hyper links to the net for even more information. With two CD-ROM discs and a bonus audio CD you're getting hours and hours of material for essentially the price of one lesson.

Tell us a little about the Roots, Rags & Blues project, and the process of making it.

Back in the 70's I played a lot of fancy fingerpicking roots music and ragtime, classic jazz. I almost made a record for Kicking Mule but opted to form Rio Nido. Over the last couple of years, I wanted to go back and do a project that captured some of that music and in the process found that the arrangements were much better, being informed by everything I've learned in the past thirty years.

I did a tour with Dolly Parton in the fall of 2005 opening shows for her "Those Were the Days" tour, then I played in the UK and Ireland and at the end of all that filmed the lessons in Bristol with Steve Elliot, who has a company called Acoustic Music Workshop.

That was the easy part.

We spent much of 2006 tabbing, notating, and proofreading. The lesson tunes are: Mississippi Blues, Jelly Roll Blues, Maple Leaf Rag, Victory Rag, two different versions in different keys of Amazing Grace and a 1918 Klezmer Classic, Tanst Yiddlekh.

I also filmed 5 bonus video segments of Carolina Shout, The Pearls, and alternate versions of Amazing Grace, Victory Rag and Tanst Yiddlekh. These bonus segments are played on a 1917 Gibson L-4, which I found in a pawnshop in Chicago while doing the Dolly tour. It's a pretty neat guitar and the segments are cool.

You’ve performed with some amazing people over the years, people on the cutting edge of their art like Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and Eric Friedlander. Is there anyone right now that you’d really like to work with if the right opportunity were to arise?

In August I did a couple of nice gigs in Brooklyn at Zebulon and The Stone, which is John Zorn's performance space in the lower East Village. I played with Rashanim – which is a hot jazz/power trio in NY these days – comprised of Jon Madof on guitar, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass and Mathias Kunzli on drums. That was fun. I also always like working with Greg Cohen and Cyro Baptista.

I live way up in Northwestern Minnesota, halfway between Fargo and Lake Wobegon. I'm teaching at the University of Minnesota, Morris and have a great class of guitar students. But I miss playing gigs in the Twin Cities with all the great players I came up with here.

I know that you play the guitar and the oud. Do you regularly play and perform on any other instruments?

Really I am just playing guitar. Teaching at Morris has made me revisit so many areas of guitar playing I had studied and moved through...cannibalizing along the way. I am a post-modern, eclectic kind of guitarist. With students, I emphasize knowing and playing the guitar orchestrally, through study of the classical, jazz, and fingerstyle guitar canons.

Since this is a blog focused on the guitar, we can’t avoid some shoptalk. Tell us a bit about the guitars you play. Our readers are a curious lot…what are your preferences with regard to strings, picks, and capos? I’ve seen you play with a Sunrise pickup. How are most of your instruments amplified? Lastly…what are your favorite tunings?

I am playing a Collings Custom OM Style cutaway made for The Podium. I used it on the Dolly tour and during the lessons in Roots, Rags & Blues. I have a Sunrise [magnetic pickup] and K & K transducers. I use an AER Amp. I use standard and drop D [tunings]. I like John Pearse Strings, phosphor bronze, in the “Slightly Light” gauge [11-50]. I use the capo a lot when working with other guitarists or to make a nice arrangement in first position sound a little brighter.

Today, tools like a content-rich website and participating in social network spheres like MySpace are pretty important to working artists. How has technology played a role in the way that you promote yourself and keep in touch with your audience? Have you found yourself gaining listeners via the technology you employ? Have you discovered interesting music or made professional contacts with this technology?

I only recently started a MySpace page. I always thought it was a social networking thing for kids. But then promoters I worked with all started saying they liked to use it. It does have an easy-to-use, at-a-glance, standardized format with 4 tunes in a player.

I think it needs a lot of work…still cumbersome and too slow. But it reveals how many really good guitarists there are all over the globe who are now interconnected in a networked community.

YouTube also has a lot of great guitar, solo guitar clips and a community of players recording, posting, and sharing their stuff. I use YouTube a lot with students. For example, I have a student who is learning the Sor Variations and I can just click on YouTube and there's Segovia playing it! Or Mother Maybelle Carter playing Wildwood Flower, etc., etc.

Thanks Tim!
Here's Tim Sparks performing Mississippi Blues:

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