ALL ABOARD THE BATTLESPARK GALACTICA – Bobby Sparks II Talks Schizophrenia, Chilli Sauce And Prince

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  • ALL ABOARD THE BATTLESPARK GALACTICA – Bobby Sparks II Talks Schizophrenia, Chilli Sauce And Prince

“My father made the best chilli in the world,” says Bobby Sparks II in a deep, sleepy voice that possesses a languid, molasses-rich, Southern drawl. “He used to win chilli cook-off contests all the time. He was known as Chilli Poppa.” The quietly-spoken 46-year-old keyboard player originally from Texas – who can be heard on Snarky Puppy’s latest album, ‘Immigrance’ – is reflecting on the inspiration behind a spicy number that appears on his debut album, ‘Schizophrenia – The Yang Project.’ It’s a succulent funk jam with a sticky backbeat called ‘Bobby Sparks Sr.’s Famous Chili’ and is intended as a homage to his late father’s famed piquant Mexican stew.

Though Bobby Jr. might not be noted for his culinary prowess, on his new album – a sprawling double platter released via the Leopard label – he blends together different musical ingredients like a bonafide master chef. Indeed, the album is characterised by an abundance of tangy and delectable flavours. As already mentioned, you’ll find some searing chunks of funk, but you’ll also discover R&B, hip-hop, jazz, blues, and rock flavours together with elements drawn from symphonic and world music. It’s a kaleidoscopic collage of sounds and styles that is breathtaking, and at times, almost epic, in its scope…

Bobby Sparks believes that the album’s twenty songs, with all their many colours, reflect all the different types of music he has been exposed to in his life. “I’m a student of all music,” he explains, which is corroborated by a glance at his impressive CV, which ranges from pop artists like St. Vincent and Nelly Furtado to music giants, Prince, George Benson and Herbie Hancock. He continues: “I grew up in the church. My mother started me out. She showed me my first chords and they were gospel chords from hymns. And then my father, a jazzman, had me listening to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and all the jazz greats. And then he turned me onto the blues. He had me listen to Albert King, Albert Collins, and Freddie King. And then at nine years old, I discovered Prince, who turned me into a funkateer.”

Fellow keyboard player, the late George Duke (pictured right), also had a profound influence on Bobby Sparks II, who believes that his eclecticism is partly a result of wanting to emulate his idol: “I patterned myself after George Duke because he played everything: jazz, funk, pop and Brazilian music. He inspired me to want to learn about new music and go to different countries and study world music.”

The keyboardist discloses that ‘Schizophrenia’ was a long time in gestation – many years, in fact.  “I’ve been writing this stuff for the last 25 years, so I had to get it out,” he laughs. “I called it ‘Schizophrenia’ because if you listen to it, it goes in so many directions. So I just thought it was schizophrenic, going from this genre to the next.”

Sparks reveals that much of the album was recorded while he was on the road, touring as a sideman for other musicians. “Because I had no money to call people in, I would just grab people when I met them and go to hotel rooms to record,” he laughs. This was how the track ‘Bobby Sparks Sr.’s Famous Chili’ came together. It features a cameo from bassist extraordinaire, Marcus Miller (pictured above). “That’s another tune where me and Marcus were on the road,” reveals the keyboardist. “I went to his hotel room and sat at my computer and said ‘hey man, just play.'” Not only did Sparks tour with Marcus Miller but he also appeared on the bassist’s albums, ‘Free,’ and ‘Renaissance.’ “Marcus is a sweetheart,” he says. “I think working with Marcus I learned so much about music history and also history in general because Marcus is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met. You can talk to Marcus about the stock market or just about anything.”

The song, ‘Take It!’, reunited Bobby Sparks with the late jazz trumpeter, Roy Hargrove (pictured right), whose neo-soul band, The RH Factor,  he was a member of between 2003-2006. “I met Roy with (tenor saxophonist) Keith Anderson (who also plays on ‘Schizophrenia’). Keith is one of my best friends and he and Roy grew up together in elementary school. They also went to middle school together and after that went to the Arts Magnet high school (aka Booker T. Washington School For The Performing And Visual Arts in Dallas). So Roy was over at my house in 1998. We were just hanging out. I let him hear the song, ‘Take It!’ and some other stuff that I had that also ended up on ‘Schizophrenia.’ He said, “man, this is some bad stuff.  I want to do something like this.” His manager called me back about two weeks later to say ‘can we do a demo at your house,’ because I already had a studio there. So we got the guys together and did our RH Factor demos, sent it to Verve, and they loved it. They told us to come to New York to Electric Lady studios and we recorded the whole record (it was released as ‘Hard Groove’ in 2003) and then went on the road. I always carry my studio with me – my Pro-tools and my mikes – just in case. Roy came to my hotel room when we were at the Tokyo Jazz Festival in 2005 and played ‘Take It!’.”

Bobby Jr. says the same thing happened with French harmonica player, Gregoire Maret, who appears on the song,  ‘Let’s Take A Journey.’  “Basically, me and him used to play with Marcus Miller together. We were on the road and on a day off, I’d say come and play on this. The same with Keith Anderson. On a day off I’d get my mike and M- box and instead of going out and spending money, I’d be working on music.”

It was lack of funds that resulted in Sparks using Simon Novski to do string arrangements using samples rather than a real orchestra. “I’m an orchestral guy,” confesses the keyboardist. “I love strings. I grew up listening to those Barry White records where you had a full orchestra and those Bob James records in the seventies where you had the full string section and full horns. I gravitated to that sound but in making this record, I realised I couldn’t afford real strings although at first, I wanted the strings to be authentic and reached out to all the greatest arrangers like Clare Fischer and Vince Mendoza.”

In the end, Sparks was told about a young arranger called Simon Novski,  who provides stunning faux orchestral textures on the title track, as well as ‘Birth Of The Sparkchild,’ the cinematic  ‘Let’s Take A Journey,’ and the eastern tone poem, ‘Islam.’ “Simon Novski is a young genius and he’s a producer, a singer, and a piano player,” says Sparks. “So I sent him the ‘Islam’ track and he wore it out. Then I started sending him more, so that’s how Simon came on the record. He’s like the secret weapon.”

Another guest spot on the album is filled by singer, Frank McComb, whose lush, melismatic vocals light up the silky soul ballad, ‘I Miss U.’ “He’s one of my favourite singers,” says Sparks. “We were looking for different vocalists and a friend of mine, the drummer, Mark Simmons, wrote ‘I Miss U’  for his wife but she sat on it so when I heard it, I said, I need something like that to balance out my record because I had all of this testosterone on there and a lot of funk. I needed something that would slow it down, like a mid-tempo ballad that would make the record easy to listen to. So I called Frank, sent the track to him and he did everything himself at his house.”

More mellow soulfulness comes in the shape of the dreamy ‘All Mine,’ which samples Philly soul group, The Stylistics. “That song was produced by some dear friends of mine, Leonard and Kenneth Manning, they’re twins,” reveals Sparks. “They’re in Mental Chaos, a hip-hop group here in Dallas, and they have a rapper named Damascus. They put the song out on record but nothing really came of it. But I loved it and asked them if I could put it on the record. So we took it and then I put my little touch with a Minimoog and then mixed it.”

Going right back, Bobby Sparks was first drawn to playing keyboards when he sat at the organ in his local church. “It was the 6th Avenue Baptist Church in Corsicana, Texas,” explains Sparks. “That’s where I started when I was five, playing the organ. But some of the members of the church were uncomfortable with me playing because they said I was going to tear up the organ.” To allays the fears of his pastor and some of the congregation, Bobby Sparks Sr. decided to get their son his own keyboard. “On my sixth birthday, he bought me a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker,” recalls Bobby Jr.  “It was five grand, which in 1978 was a lot of money. My parents were both schoolteachers and didn’t have a lot of money, but they bought me a B3  as an investment …and I played it every day.”

Though Bobby Sparks’ influences are many, wide and varied, his musical foundation stone is African-American sacred music. “Gospel music got me into harmony,” he states. “In gospel music, we have an advantage over everybody in that you get to study harmony at a very young age so, most of the gospel musicians deal with harmonies that are rich and way out.”

Though he heard a lot of gospel music when he was growing up – including Edwin Hawkins and James Cleveland – his organ hero was jazz legend, Jimmy Smith. “He was always first,” reveals Sparks. “I also listened to a little Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff sometimes but for the most part, it was always Jimmy Smith. And then, later on, I really got into Larry Young, and he changed my whole perspective.”

For many years, Sparks was the musical director for inspirational music icon, Kirk Franklin, playing keys on numerous albums for a tenure that lasted 20 years. He saw it as a valuable experience, enriching his music education. “Kirk Franklin is probably one of the greatest gospel songwriters of all time,” states Sparks. “I learned a lot about songwriting hanging around him.”

He says he learned even more from listening to Prince (pictured left) and says that the purple genius’s early albums remain a constant source of inspiration. “‘Dirty Mind,’ ‘Controversy,’ and ‘1999’ were all really different,” he says. “I was a very big Prince fan. He’s my biggest inspiration.”

Bobby Sparks, in fact, got to work with his idol briefly back in 2009. “I was out touring with Dennis Chambers and Dean Brown in Europe and Shelby (Johnson), the bald-headed girl who I worked with on The RH Factor record called me and said ‘Prince has really been checking you out. He wants to see if you can come and jam with the band.'” Sparks couldn’t oblige immediately because he was on tour in Europe but when he got back to the US, he eventually hooked up with Prince’s band, The New Power Generation: “I went to Minneapolis for a month and rehearsed with the band. I was getting fitted for stage suits, and my wife was asked to give them my passport information. On the last day of rehearsal, me and Prince were battling, going back and forth on our instruments. He said to me after, “man, you’re such a bad dude. I’ll see you Sunday.”  I said OK, and then he walked off. Then I asked the band, ‘what’s going on Sunday?’ They said, ‘we’re going to Europe for four months.’ I was like, what? Nobody told me we were going there and I already had two tours booked – one with Kirk Franklin and the other with Dennis Chambers. So I told them I couldn’t do it.”

But that wasn’t the last time Bobby Sparks saw Prince. On 19th April 2016, he was working as a sideman for singer Lizz Wright in Minneapolis. “I was playing with her at the Dakota Club and Prince came in and he gave me a hug,” reveals Sparks.  “He sat there and stayed for the whole concert. Two days later, when we were leaving Minneapolis, we were at the airport and on all the TVs there, they were showing that Prince had died. I said no, that can’t be, I just saw him the night before last. I was shocked because he looked just fine. He didn’t look sick like the media was saying.”

With the new album in the shops and earning critical plaudits, it would seem the right time for Bobby Sparks to go out and tour to promote it. “I plan to go on the road,” he says, but admits there are some obstacles in the way. “I’m trying to get it together but it’s hard because I’m still out touring with Snarky Puppy. But I’m still looking for a booking agent and looking for people that can help me get solid gigs because I can’t afford to get a whole bunch of grown men and say hey, we’re just going out to play a bar and we’ll take the door money.”

Whether he’s touring or staying at home, Bobby Sparks’ devotion is to music. It’s his religion and raison d’être. Even when he’s not playing, the odds are that he’s thinking about music. It’s the obsession that drives his soul. “I’m always creating music and trying to push it forward,” he enthuses. But how does he plan to trump an epic record like ‘Schizophrenia?’ “The next one will be a little more different,” he reveals, adding: “but it will be the same sort of artistic statement. Basically, it’s like walking in the dark blindfolded and reaching out and trying to make people listen. But it’s all about pushing the music forward.”

Bobby Sparks II’s ‘Schizophrenia – The Yang Project’ Is Out Now Via The Leopard Label.