Minnesota guitarist Tim Sparks has spent the past 20 years on a remarkable journey that has taken him from his blues and jazz roots deep into surprising ethnic realms, especially Balkan and traditional Jewish music. Along the way, he has solidified his reputation not only as a brilliant fingerstyle guitarist, but also as a savvy, even daring arranger who has significantly added to the guitar canon.
Now Sparks is coming full circle in a sense, re-releasing his first solo album, "The Nutcracker Suite," and playing much of its material Wednesday at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.
The disc, originally issued in Germany in 1992, not only features Sparks' striking solo guitar interpretation of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, but also "Balkan Dreams Suite" -- his adaptations of regional folk music -- plus one original that stirs in the blues.
"This 'Balkan Dreams Suite' is a linchpin to a lot of things I did afterwards," Sparks reflected last week at a St. Paul coffee shop, shortly after returning from a European tour.
"I got this handle on this Near Eastern and southeastern European and Mediterranean guitar thing," he explained in a soft drawl that evokes his native North Carolina. "One component of this music is what they call odd meters or asymmetrical meters. This was a novel project for solo guitar, working out these dance rhythms that are asymmetrical."
That experience provided the foundation for an acclaimed series of Jewish music albums he recorded beginning in the late '90s.
As for "The Nutcracker," Sparks, who long ago studied classical guitar with Jesus Silva, a protégé of the great Andrés Segovia, tackled the adaptation around the end of his decade-long run with Rio Nido, the popular Twin Cities vintage-jazz group.
"After trying to learn Gershwin and jazz standards, there was something about the Tchaikovsky pieces -- they're short and succinct," he said. "I could see the logic in it and it didn't seem that far-fetched. And a composer like Tchaikovsky is really a foundation for a lot of pop music that came out of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway in the '20s and '30s."
Sparks' version is subtly dazzling, and, in fact, helped him win the 1993 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship. He also marvelously captures the essence of Tchaikovsky's original while hinting at Duke Ellington's sophisticated jazz interpretation.
"I wasn't thinking about Ellington's version at the time," he said. "That might have seriously confused me. But subsequently I listened to that a lot and someday I might try to do a rethinking of 'The Nutcracker Suite' in a jazz deconstructive context."
Bible Belt to bar mitzvahs
Sparks' interest in Balkan music was piqued by a late 1980s trip there with his wife. Upon his return to the Twin Cities, he dove into the local ethnic music scene. Soon the Bible Belt native was playing Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs with the likes of accordionist Mark Stillman, as well as with Greek, Middle Eastern and Brazilian groups.
Eventually, playing in so many diverse groups got to be a strain. But by then New York avant-gardist John Zorn had enlisted Sparks for a series of albums on his "radical Jewish culture" label Tzadik that dramatically reinvented klezmer and other Jewish roots music.
Ultimately that widespread experience coalesced into a distinctive Sparks style. "Which I like to call postmodern," he said, laughing.
"I got that idea from John Zorn. It's eclecticism, basically. He wanted me to do versions of Jewish music in this guitar style. Not only did he want me to arrange the music, but also play it in a way that's very eclectic, like mixing up jazz lines with blues lines and then modal scales and the ethnicity of the original source. It was stimulated by his encouraging me to be as free as I wanted in interpreting the music. What Zorn wanted was using those traditional pieces as a jumping-off point, but to really stretch the boundaries."
Which Sparks, 58, continues to do, even while occasionally dipping into the country, blues and ragtime of his formative days. Currently he's enmeshed in adapting the orchestral work of 20th-century Russian composers Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky for guitar.
"The Russian music is kind of like the Tchaikovsky [piece]. If you're really trying to re-create the piece for guitar in a way that captures its spirit, that can be really daunting and drive you kind of crazy. It's not commercial, but it's really cool guitar music."