Melvin Sparks & Leon Spencer | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Melvin Sparks & Leon Spencer 

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MELVIN SPARKS & LEON SPENCER

One of the salutary side effects of acid jazz has been the unearthing of forgotten funk. Take Lou Donaldson's The Scorpion, an exquisitely hip live session the alto saxist recorded more than a quarter century ago; it languished in the vault until 1995, when Blue Note issued it as part of the Rare Groove series. What makes The Scorpion sting is the matchup of guitarist Melvin Sparks with organist Leon Spencer Jr. Voracious B-3 and slicing semiacoustic guitar are a classic combination, and Sparks and Spencer are one of the perfect pairings of soul-jazz. Above drummer Idris Muhammad's harrowingly deep pocket, they play greasy or sweet, nasty or nice--any way you like it, baby. Their partnership goes back to a shared childhood in Houston, where as a teenager Sparks first slung R & B with legends on a freelance basis, then backed soul singers with Little Richard's Upsetters. Though he moved to New York in '67 and made a niche of funky organ jazz, the guitarist never lost the blues grit he'd gathered coming up. While he was on the road cutting his teeth with organist Jack McDuff, Spencer moved to LA to play with guitarist Wilbert Longmire and recorded hot dates with soul bopper Sonny Stitt and blues lickster Rusty Bryant. Among prized rarities from the funky-jazz heyday, Sparks's sparkling '73 LP Texas Twister (Eastbound) is a particular favorite of mine; on it, the guitarist's lean sound, aggressive solos, and sure comp are fully evident. Of late, Spencer's been somewhat less in the public ear, but Sparks has been a fixture with soul saxist Hank Crawford since the 80s, toured with San Diego's Greyboy Allstars, appears on recent records by organist Ron Levy and his band Wild Kingdom, and stepped up to bat at the end of last year with a solid new disc of his own, I'm a 'Gittar' Player (Cannonball), produced by Levy. This rare reunion is being billed as a party for Sparks's birthday. Saturday, 10 PM, Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln; 312-409-0099 or 312-559-1212. There's also a free performance Saturday at 1 PM at Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash; 312-222-1467. JOHN CORBETT

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Melvin Sparks photo by Hank Shull/ Leon Spencer photo by Tony Lane.

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