In a note detailing Soulive and Karl Denson's upcoming CD release shows around their new EP SPARK!
Denson most helpfully advises: SPARK!
is really about the playing, less about the tunes. It's the four of us collectively getting back to more of a jazzier thing than we'd done in recent memory."
That's the key to this lovely little project, which breezes on by -- with spot moments of intensity -- in four tunes and 35 minutes and sounds exactly like Soulive and Denson intended: bottle up some lightning, pay a little tribute, wear the groove out a little, and most of all, don't overthink it. Each of SPARK!'s
four selections -- an original and appropriately summoned versions of tunes by Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef -- sounds like the leavings of an unfrilly jam session no one was forcing to go anywhere, but given the caliber of the players involved and the chance to mark the passing of one of the most underrated jazz/blues guitarists of all time…well, hey, let's knock it out.
That guitarist would be Melvin Sparks, who died in March 2011 at 64. He could play roiling hard bop and knotted blues, but was most of all a towering figure in soul jazz, and apart from the 11 studio albums he released as a leader, his list of sideman credits -- Hank Crawford, Joey DeFrancesco, Lou Donaldson, Lonnie Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and on and on -- gives you the briefest sense of how inside-beloved Sparks was in groove-centric music circles.
The Evans Brothers, Eric Krasno and Denson all played with the man, and here do him justice, particularly in the original "Spark," framed around a Krasno solo that -- in true Melvin fashion -- could be heard as pleasantly friendly or ominously aggressive with just a shade to the left or right. Sometimes the conversation drifts a bit. This version of Hubbard's "Polvo" has an airy, background-noise expression that you're certain they could have frothed up a bit after hearing Lateef's "Nubian Lady," which feels like half of its nearly 12 minutes' worth of slicing organ, chopper drums and sexed-up flute.
But this is chewy, nourishing stuff, and unsurprisingly pleasant.