From The Minor 7th, January 2019
Guitarist Tim Sparks has been in the vanguard of acoustic fingerstyle guitarists for several decades. He’s integrated Eastern European musical influences into his playing, scored and performed “The Nutcracker” for solo guitar, and has substantial chops as a blues fingerpicker. Here he teams up with upright bassist James Buckley, whom Erin Roof has called “the hardest-working musician in the Twin Cities.” They recorded this album of pop standards and two originals in one day, and the results defied my expectations. Improvisation is the order of the day here, as Sparks and Buckley use each tune as a jumping off point for harmonic and melodic explorations. They start with Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound,” in which Sparks states the melody and chorus, then launches an extemporaneous musical conversation with Buckley. This dialogue defines the album, rather than the song selections. Throughout the album, Sparks’s guitar is warmly amplified. He tends to play in the middle-toupper ranges of the guitar, alternating between single-string lines and jazzy chords, the latter of which he employs tastefully when comping behind Buckley, whose tone has a perfect, unamplified presence. Standouts for me are the title track (a laid-back jazz waltz), Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and a second original, “If It Ain’t Blue, Don’t Fix It,” a minor blues. The duo’s reworking of John Lennon’s “Imagine” is unexpected and stunning. They also tackle Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” interspersing parts from the Beatles’ various recorded versions with improvised passages in a way that both honors and presents a new vision of the song. Country music gets ample attention with Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date,” Don Henley and Glen Frey’s “Lyin’ Eyes,” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” The set ends with a take on Chris Connell’s “Black Hole Sun” that is both moody and energetic. On Jukebox Dreamin’, Tim Sparks and James Buckley display inventiveness and musical empathy in equal measure. As an inspiration to musicians, they demonstrate how to tip the balance toward creativity when playing familiar material.