A musical highlight of the new year will bring together two guitar aces, Tim Sparks and Tom Lieberman, in a Feb. 7 coffeehouse concert at Beth El Synagogue.
Sparks, the headliner, will play songs by Naftule Brandwein — the self-proclaimed “King of the Klezmer Clarinet” — which will be recorded soon and released as an album on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
Sparks has previously recorded three albums of klezmer, Jewish popular songs and liturgical music — Neshamah, Tanz and At the Rebbe’s Table — adapted for guitar on Tzadik. Also, Sparks, along with guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, plays compositions by Zorn on the album Masada Guitars.
In addition to teaching guitar to students at the University of Minnesota in Morris, Sparks tours frequently in Europe, and has recorded with a variety of musicians on the other side of the ocean.
The latest album by Sparks is called Sidewalk Blues (ToneWood Records). It’s a brilliant expression of his accomplished fingerstyle guitar technique on tunes, adapted by Sparks for guitar, by Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Maybelle Carter, et al. And Sparks’ guitar virtuosity can be heard on a forthcoming album by a Paris-based group, Le Freylekh Trio, with the Goulash System.Â
Lieberman will open the Beth El show and then join Sparks for some of the tunes they played in the late 1970s with the swing jazz ensemble Rio Nido, which also included vocalist Prudence Johnson. They were the founders of Rio Nido; the group featured different lineups after 1980, when Lieberman left. (A Japanese label has reissued two Rio Nido albums, I Like to Riff and Hi Fly.)
Lieberman, a Minneapolis native and current Beth El congregant, saw Sparks, a North Carolina native, perform around the West Bank when he moved to Minnesota around 1974.
“I was really smitten,” Lieberman, 51, recalls about hearing the 1993 National Fingerstyle Guitar champion play. “It was like, this guy is really good… It was very broadening for me, just in terms of learning about music.”
The duo joined forces in Rio Nido, which Lieberman describes as “a big guy, a little guy and a blonde.”
Regarding the Rio Nido repertoire, which will be reprised at the upcoming Feb. 7 show, Lieberman says that “a lot of the music sort of predated swing — early pop music, show music. The swing era was certainly our sweet spot, and then into early bop and vocalese.”
The group had a lot of musical role models, notes Lieberman, who mentions the Boswell Sisters; The Cats and The Fiddle, a Kansas City-based string and vocal group; and the incomparable vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Sparks, 54, mentions the varied musical scene on the West Bank in the ’70s, including Ted Unseth and the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra.
“We would be the vocal group in front of the big band,” comments Lieberman, regarding their gigs with the Wolverines.
Lieberman now provides creative and production services for radio, TV, stage and film. He has developed Disney and Muppets shows for Feld Entertainment and VEE Corporation, respectively. He recently was anÂ executive producer and the music supervisor for the film Sweetland, which was shot in Minnesota.Â He also produced and directed the documentary about Jews on the North Side of Minneapolis, We Knew Who We Were, which includes songs by Sparks.
Lieberman and his wife, Amy (nee Laiderman), have two children, Liza, 23, and Jake, 21.
Sparks has carved a unique musical path, playing with artists from varied musical traditions. On the Jewish and Israeli side, Sparks played over the years with Maury Bernstein, one of the great local musicologists, and with Mark Stillman. He also played with Voices of Sepharad, the Sephardic dance and music ensemble founded here by Judith Brin Ingber and David Harris.
Travels through Europe and the former Yugoslavia deepened Sparks’ interest in the music of the Balkans and Gypsy music.
“I was learning the nuts and bolts of Gypsy music,” he recalls, “what’s know as ‘ethnic music,’ but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Sparks and his wife, Chryll (it’s not a typo, it’s how she spells her name), live up north in Frazee. It’s convenient to the We Fest site at the Soo Pass Ranch near Detroit Lakes, a country music festival that Chryll Sparks has produced and promoted for the past 25 years.
Over a leisurely lunch at the Quang Deli, on the stretch of Nicollet Avenue called “Eat Street,” Sparks and Lieberman recall their twined careers and walk down local musical lanes.
Regarding his current project of recording Naftule Brandwein compositions, Sparks terms the icon of New York City’s klezmer scene in the early 20th century, the “original downtown [New York] artist.”
Brandwein became legendary for his musicianship and his showmanship. The liner notes to the Rounder album, King of the Klezmer Clarinet, mention the musician “appearing on stage wearing an Uncle Sam costume adorned with Christmas tree lights and nearly electrocuting himself due to excessive perspiration.”
Sparks, who is not Jewish, is fascinated with the bohemian Yiddish milieu that congregated on New York’s Lower East Side in the early part of the previous century. He later sends me a Web link to a fascinating 1908 New York Times story about Joseph Moskowitz, who was renowned for playing the tsimbl, a hammered dulcimer-type European instrument. Manhattan music lovers flocked to a café near “Little Hungary” on East Houston Street, where Moskowitz played from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., and “raw meat and nudel soup” was served to patrons.
Over Vietnamese noodle soup, Sparks and Lieberman reminisce about the heyday of Rio Nido, in the Dome Room at the old Capp Towers hotel (later a Holiday Inn) on the Nicollet Mall.
“That was our house gig for years,” says Lieberman.
“It was a great scene,” Sparks adds. “The gig was five or six nights a week, it would go on for months at a time. That was really where we got a cult following.”
“’Cause there was no cover, and [free] peel-and-eat shrimp,” Lieberman recalls.
Beth El Music and Arts (BEMA) presents a coffeehouse concert with guitarists Tim Sparks and Tom Lieberman 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7 in the Gruman Social Hall. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 (Beth El members) and $15 (students 22 and under). For tickets and information, call Raquel at Beth El, 952-920-3512, or go to: bethelsynagogue.com. Beth El Synagogue is located at 5224 W. 26th St., St. Louis Park.
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