In 2003, the acclaimed avant-jazz recording Masada Guitars came out on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records label. It was the first album in a series commemorating the tenth anniversary of the pioneering saxophonist’s Masada songbooks. Zorn tapped fingerpicking champ Tim Sparks—along with guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell—to deliver the tunes in arrangements pared down for solo guitar.
“Zorn encouraged me to be completely eclectic in my approach to the tunes,” says Sparks, who recently revisited the Masada works as part of a new performance series featuring musicians who have recorded for Tzadik. “He wanted me to play the way I played, using whatever I wanted.”
For Sparks, that means bringing his own mix of Southern cultural traditions and other styles to Zorn’s twist on Jewish music. Sparks had first learned blues and “moonshine gospel” from his paternal grandmother, who played piano in little churches in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then, with a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts, he studied classical guitar under Jesus Silva. At 16, Sparks met fingerstylist Duck Baker. “He really blew my mind,” Sparks says. “He was playing everything: Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, Coltrane, Irish/Celtic music, ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton. Totally eclectic. I was also very influenced by Lenny Breau. He played flamenco really well. He played Chet Atkin’s style really well. He played jazz. He could play this amazing harmonic stuff. He crossed all those boundaries and mixed them up. That’s kind of my bag.”
It’s a mixed bag that brought Sparks to the attention of Zorn, a pivotal figure in New York City’s adventurous downtown music scene since the 1980s. For Zorn, the Masada project began as a personal answer to what Jewish music is. He’s called the pieces “sketches” to inspire creation. Combining Jewish musical scales, odd meters, and supple, lyrical melodies with the brazen assurance of Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, each tune provides opportunities for musicians to bring their own backgrounds and influences to bear. The tunes, short and meant to be played by small groups of musicians, have proved extraordinarily malleable, finding expression in interpretations that range from Afro-Cuban party music and guitar-driven math metal to the elegant chamber-jazz of Zorn’s own string trio. Still, they retain their singular character — what Sparks refers to as the soul of the music.
“I was part of Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series,” Sparks says. “In my case, it’s very radical. I’m not Jewish. I’m a redneck from North Carolina. But I made this journey from hillbilly to playing Jewish music, because what I like is music with soul. When I made my first record for Zorn [Neshama, 1999], I was learning Mizrahi tunes, or tunes from Yemen or Dagestan, as well as Klezmer and Sephardic tunes. I was picking out songs from all over the Jewish Diaspora, which is so vast. It touches on so many different types of music. It has this integral continuity because those scales go back to cantorial music, yet there are all these connections to other styles. A flamenco chord can beautifully express a Klezmer scale. In blues, you bend the note to get the real third that you want to find if you grew up with real intonation rather than the tempered intonation of western music. You find the same thing in Klezmer and Middle Eastern music.”
Making connections is at the heart of Masada. Zorn encourages musicians to cross borders and range broadly. There’s an emphasis on fusion. He never defines Jewish music, yet Zorn’s framework is intensely Jewish.
The first book of the Masada project is comprised of 205 tunes. The second, Book of Angels, has 316. The Book of Beriah is the final collection and will comprise 92 pieces when complete. That’s 613 tunes, the traditional count of biblical mitzvot in The Torah (the five books of Moses). While mitzvot is generally translated as “commandments,” the word might be better understood from its root word, “tzavata,” which means “connection.” Each mitzvah is a way to connect with the spiritual realm. In some Jewish thought, based on Lurianic Kabbalah, the world is broken and can be restored only when the divine spark that resides in every splinter of it is raised up to the spiritual realm and reunified with it. That’s what a mitzvah does. It raises a spark as part of the work of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. It’s an ongoing, evolutionary process.
The way Sparks describes working on these tunes, it appears the player is raised up, too.“When one is composing on the guitar, it’s a simple matter to create phrases that ergonomically address whatever fretboard obstacles arise. However, when you tackle an ambitious arrangement like the Masada pieces, you inevitably expand and stretch your technique and understanding of the fretboard, because you have to figure out those gnarly passages that defy your comprehension of what is playable on the guitar.”
The Masada tunes are collaborative. Zorn chooses musicians from his ever-expanding coterie, but he lets them find the tunes they want to work on. “He faxed me a whole bunch of charts and said pick whatever you like,” Sparks says. “Ever since I did that recording of The Nutcracker Suite [Tonewood Records, 1993], I’ve been into odd-metered songs. ‘Sippur,’ for example, has really unusual rhythms. The A section is in 11/4, and the B section is in 4/4.”
‘I’m a redneck from North Carolina. But I made this journey from hillbilly to playing Jewish music, because what I like is music with soul.’
To figure out a thumb pattern, Sparks studied Greg Cohen’s bass line on the original Masada Quartet recording for the principle accents in the 11/4 part. That made it possible to put the melody together with the bassline and learn the song. Then he transposed the tune from its original horn key of F into E, a guitar key that allows him to exploit extra open string notes for orchestral effects. “I also listened to the version of ‘Sippur’ by the Masada String Trio. Putting my capo at the first fret and playing in E position helped me get the basic shape of the tune.”
For the rhythm in the second part, Sparks uses the staggered bass line of “baião” (pronounced “bi-yow”), a Brazilian rhythm he first explored in “Eu So Quero Um Xodo,” on the album One String Follows Another.
“Baião has a sort of skip in it,” Sparks says. “I find a lot of times when I’m arranging an odd-metered song and trying to use a steady 4/4 thumb beat, like a Travis pattern, it just gets really complicated. Playing a skippy sort of thing like that little baião allows it all to fall together a lot easier. It really meshes nicely.”
In 2010, Acoustic Guitar listed Masada Guitars as one of 20 essential acoustic albums of the past decade. The solo renditions underscore the depth and subtlety of Zorn’s Masada work. Sparks’ contributions are striking for their sophisticated ornamentation, dynamic rhythms, and bold turns of phrase. But tunes like “Sippur” continue to evolve as part of the guitarist’s wide-ranging repertoire.
“Things you record change over time,” Sparks says. “They improve and sound better. You find little nuances and fingering ideas you wish you would have thought of before you made the recording. But it’s not like I’m inventing anything. It’s solving a problem. Like a Rubik’s Cube.
“And a lot of practicing.”
What Tim Sparks Plays
Tim Sparks plays an OM custom cutaway by Charles Hoffman and an acoustic/electric hybrid by Tim Reede. He strings the Hoffman with John Pearse Silk and Phosphor Bronze Strings and uses medium-guage D’Addario XL with a wound third on the Tim Reede guitar. His K&K pickups are run through Red Eye and K&K preamps.
Sparks does his own stick-on nails, because they wear down fast on steel strings and need to be replaced once every week or ten days. “There seems to be only one brand readily available in most drugstores: Kiss Nails,” he says. “There used to be a much better version called Fing’rs that can still be found in Europe.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.