Melvin Sparks: Live at Nectar’s (One Note)

Review of album by influential but often overlooked guitarist

Cover of Melvin Sparks album Live at Nectars
Cover of Melvin Sparks album Live at Nectars

A few months before he died in 2011, at age 64, guitarist Melvin Sparks was recorded in concert at the Burlington, Vermont, club Nectar’s. The resultant live album, now available as a digital download and on limited-edition vinyl, is prototypical soul-jazz but atypical of Sparks, who didn’t feature horn players much in his later years but brought in two for this gig: alto saxophonist Dave Grippo and tenor saxophonist Brian McCarthy. Live at Nectar’s is by no means an essential record, but it’s a fine coda to Sparks’ career.

He sounds as strong as ever, and his chief supporters, organist Beau Sasser and drummer Bill Carbone, are tight. Sasser, though, tends to dig into the B-3 bag of tricks here: Notes and phrases are repeated and repeated, sometimes a few bars more than one cares to hear. On the other hand, though Sparks has been compared to Grant Green, his music has more in common with funk and jam bands. Great lyrical soloing, in other words, is not the top priority. You’ve got your hot opener in “Miss Riverside,” your smoking boogaloo in “Fire Eater,” your covers of hits in “Breezin’” and “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got),” your midtempo funk in “Cranberry Sunshine” (which does feature a superb solo from Sasser) and your bring-down-the-house closer in “Whip! Whop!” Everything’s very enjoyable, even if nothing stands out besides the silly, out-of-place quotes from “St. Thomas” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” in the middle of “Breezin’.” It’s all in the name of pleasing the crowds, and Sparks always accomplished that goal.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Live at Nectar’s by Melvin Sparks on iTunes.