The Piedmont region of the Eastern United States is best known for blues, not klezmer. But acoustic guitarist Tim Sparks, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., is throwing the weight of his background behind Jewish folk music, reinventing both the music and the guitar in the process.
“Little Princess,” Sparks’s fourth album exploring Jewish music, is a collection of songs by Naftule Brandwein, a clarinet player who helped bring klezmer to North America in the early 20th century.
A self-promoting iconoclast who dubbed himself the “king of Jewish music,” Brandwein grew up in the Galician town of Przemyslany and came to the United States in 1908, at the age of 19. His antics included hanging around his neck a neon sign that read “Naftule Brandwein Orchestra” and draping his body with Christmas lights, once almost electrocuting himself onstage. He was rumored to have played privately for the criminal organization Murder, Inc.
But Brandwein also had the musical chops to match his outsized personality. He was among the few professional American klezmer musicians to be trained in Europe, and for years, Brandwein’s 78 rpm records were sought after as a primary source of klezmer repertoire. In 1997 they were re-mastered and re-released, making them available to a wider variety of musicians, including Sparks.
Interpreting Brandwein’s music for the acoustic guitar, however, is a difficult task. Unlike the clarinet, violin or accordion, the guitar is not a traditional klezmer instrument, and the genre’s boisterous melodies seem unsuited to Sparks’s intricate fingerstyle technique.
But Sparks brings to the job a history of creative guitar arrangements and a musical palette of every imaginable color and shade. Growing up in North Carolina, he learned the local blues, country and gospel idioms from his guitar-playing uncle and from his grandmother, who was the pianist in a local church. His precocious talent earned him a scholarship to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied with Jesus Silva, a protégé of the classical guitar master Andrés Segovia. Sparks’s fingerstyle method draws on his classical training, but incorporates classical unorthodoxies such as the use of steel rather than nylon strings, and weaves in genres from outside the classical canon. He was influenced in his polyglot style by guitar players such as Duck Baker, whose music takes in everything from gospel to free jazz, and the little-known Canadian guitarist Lenny Breau, who pioneered the use of flamenco techniques in nonflamenco music. “In a way, Lenny Breau was about a decade and a half ahead of his time. He is the model,” Sparks said.
Sparks’s classical training stayed with him, and in 1993 he won the prestigious National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., for his arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. But his interests include a wide variety of musical styles. As a student, he explored early jazz composers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, and after high school he toured with a Chicago band playing rhythm and blues and funk covers. Eventually he settled in Minneapolis, where he joined Rio Nido, a vintage jazz outfit that played at the hip New Riverside Café and at the Coffeehouse Extempore on the city’s West Bank.
In Minneapolis, Sparks also studied Jewish music with accordionists Maury Bernstein and Mark Stillman and accompanied klezmer bands at weddings and bar mitzvahs. At the same time, he delved into the Sephardic musical tradition with Voices of Sepharad, a Twin Cities band led by vocalist David Harris. Though Sparks played mostly backup, he felt compelled to go beyond accompaniment. “Whether I’m playing jazz or Brazilian music or Jewish music, if I play it as an accompanist I want to then turn it into a solo guitar piece,” he said from his current Minnesota home in Frazee, where he lives on a small lakeside farm.
In the 1990s, Sparks became interested in world music, learned to play the oud, traveled to Lisbon to study Portuguese Fado music and recorded arrangements of Balkan music and of Béla Bartók’s Romanian dances. These recordings attracted the attention of avant-garde saxophonist and music producer John Zorn, who invited Sparks to record an album of Jewish music for his Tzadik record label.
Sparks’s initial effort, “Neshama,” adapted Ashkenazic klezmer, as well as Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish music, for the solo guitar. Sparks continued with “Tanz,” in 2000, and “At the Rebbe’s Table,” in 2002, bringing in bassist Greg Cohen and percussionist Cyro Baptista, both of whom play on “Little Princess.”
Though these projects are part of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series, Sparks’s music doesn’t seem radical at first listen. His elegant style eschews aggressive tendencies, and his harmonic nuances are best suited to contemplative enjoyment. While his arrangements might not strike the casual listener as anything unusual, however, Sparks’s approach to klezmer is original. “Little Princess” is infused with Middle Eastern and Latin flavors, partly because of Baptista’s rhythms (the song “Nifty’s Freilach,” for example, is played as a Brazilian Samba), but also because of Sparks’s own stylings.
“I’m not trying to make a klezmer guitar record, but rather rethink Naftule Brandwein through my particular kind of prism,” Sparks said. “I found that by taking a klezmer tune by Naftule Brandwein and putting it in a flamenco key, the melody suddenly just slides off the fret board.”
The far-flung sounds fit the music not only intrinsically, but also historically. Brandwein himself traveled widely, and his music incorporated a wealth of Greek, Turkish, Gypsy and other influences. Sparks also draws on his jazz background to take the music off-road from time to time, something he believes Brandwein himself might have done when he was not constrained by a three-minute recording time limit.
Like Segovia, who transformed the guitar into a serious classical instrument, or Breau, who pioneered a playing technique at the edge of multiple styles, Sparks is breaking new ground when it comes to Jewish guitar music. But if there’s one thing that klezmer always has been capable of, it’s crossing borders, whether physical, political or, as is most often the case, musical.
Ezra Glinter is a Canadian writer living in New York.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.