Death creates context like no other certainty in life. Melvin Sparks lived the life of the working guitarist, first backing legendary singers such as Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, then evolving into a preeminent soul jazz artist. His licks, as well, are some of the most sampled in hip-hop.
When Sparks passed in the spring of 2011, he left behind a certifiable legacy. He also left a live recording made on the penultimate evening of 2010; a December 30th show at the Burlington, Vermont club Nectar’s three months before his death. While it’s impossible to know if Sparks had any sense of his fate on that winter night, it is evident he played this show as the pro that he was; as though, like the saying goes, it could be his last.
The six-song instrumental set, produced by The New Mastersounds’ Eddie Roberts, has the added bonus of guests The Grippo Horns, elevating this performance to nothing short of vital. Even without the place in history the album now represents, it fundamentally encapsulates the Melvin Sparks to be remembered. He’s nimble and lively, weaving through chromatic runs on the opening “Miss Riverside.” He’s smooth and relaxed as he dissects George Benson’s “Breezin’.” He’s funky, shaking the joint on “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got).”
Most of all, Sparks is generous. His rhythmic comping leaves wide avenues for hornmen Dave Grippo and Brian McCarthy to blow through. He pushes and gets pushed by his trusted backing section of organist Beau Sasser and drummer Bill Carbone. And it all culminates on the album’s final cut, “Whip! Whop!” These six-and-a-half minutes of music are a master class in cooking with gas, groove, and soul.
Though Melvin Sparks likely didn’t need one more album to solidify his legacy, Live at Nectar’s no doubt adds to his long list of highlights. A final gift from a guitar great.