The son of a Baptist church organist (his mother) and a horn-playing bebopper (his father, Bobby senior), Bobby Sparks II was immersed in music from a young age. Originally from Corsicana, Texas, young Bobby received a Hammond organ from his parents as a gift for his sixth birthday and soon mastered it. Fast-forward several decades and Bobby Sparks II, who has played with Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor and Snarky Puppy (he can be heard on their forthcoming long player, ‘Immigrance’) now breaks out with his debut platter for the Leopard label. Evidently not one to do things by halves, Sparks has served up a sprawling 20-track double album that features a huge supporting cast, ranging from bassist extraordinaire Marcus Miller and trumpeter, the late Roy Hargrove, to singer Frank McComb, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League and blues guitarist, Lucky Peterson and Eric Gales.
The influence of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the whole P-Funk aesthetic is clearly apparent on the set’s opener, ‘Birth Of The Sparkchild,’ which features a fantasy-style spoken narrative (using a pitch-altered deep voice) over orchestral strings. At this point, you’re wondering where the album’s headed and what kind of musical journey it’s going to take the listener on. The next track, ‘Schizophrenia,’ a thrilling, epic, fusion-esque piece with Mellotron and strings, reveals that it’s going to be some kind of mid-altering cosmic trip where anything is possible. Indeed, if you’re into jazz, funk, rock, blues, hip-hop, and R&B, then Sparks’ kaleidoscopic debut is going to hit all the right spots. For funk fanatics, ‘Take It’ (featuring Roy Hargrove’s horn), ‘We Play What We Want,’ ‘Bobby Sparks Sr.’s Famous Chili’and the George Duke-influenced ‘Stono River,’ will all appeal.
There are also slow grinding rhythm and blues tunes (‘So Fine,’ featuring vocals from James ‘J.Rob’ Robinson and axe slinger Eric Gales), D’Angelo-influenced grooves (‘Can We Make Love,’ featuring Pino Palladino on bass) and sensuous soul ballads. An example of the latter is ‘I Miss U,’ a mid-tempo slow-jam graced by Frank McComb’s pleading Donny Hathaway-esque vocals.
More exploratory in nature are ‘Black Man Running From The Police,’ and ‘The Comanche Are Coming,’ the latter an excursion into jazz-rock featuring pyrotechnics from drummer Robert “Sput” Searight.
But just when you think you have pinned Sparks down and figured him out, he executes a sharp and unexpected left-turn that is utterly surprising. ‘Islam’ comes over like Indian orchestral music meets hip-hop while ‘All Mine’ is an infectious slice of rap-led disco-funk with a sweet female-voiced chorus. Another musical surprise comes in the shape of ‘Let’s Take A Journey,’ a grandiose cinematic mood piece spotlighting French harmonica wiz, Gregoire Maret.
‘Schizophrenia’ is an album title that suggests a split personality but on this exhilarating debut, Bobby Sparks II has shown that he is able to juggle multiple musical personalities. In the hands of a lesser musician, perhaps, such a diverse array of musical styles might have resulted in a confusing mess but such is Sparks’ talent that he is able to weave together many different sonic strands in a masterful and wholly convincing way. A mightily impressive debut.