Eri Yamamoto, Chad Fowler, William Parker, Steve Hirsh “Sparks”

Sparks shines from the opening notes of Eri Yamamoto’s piano until the last percussive trickles from William Parker’s bass and Steve Hirsh’s drumset. This may be the first time this ensemble, which also includes Chad Fowler on saxello and stritch, played together, but their intertwined chemistry speaks volumes. Throughout Sparks, the quartet use ad-libbed melodies as jumping-off points to map out empty spaces to break free.

On the opening title track, Yamamoto’s inquisitive piano passages bring listeners immediately into the world of Sparks. Fowler’s saxello is emotive, searching. Each note he chooses sticks to the air with purpose, heightening Yamamoto’s melodic explorations. Parker and Hirsh move slyly; the bassline rises and falls with acumen and grace while Hirsh’s atmospherics bring enchantment and texture. Even as the tempo picks up, there’s still a laid back feeling that saunters joyously into the sun. 

Despite its 90-minute runtime, Sparks moves quick. Hirsh provided the point of departure for this session as conveyed by Yamamoto, “Spontaneous folk music.” It’s an apt description of the familiarity and timelessness that’s spread across Sparks. “In the Garden” is energetic and as each musician takes their turn riffing off the main melody, I feel lighter. Fowler soars and Parker gets into a suspended groove as only he can. They’re a flock of birds diving and darting between one another, performing seemingly impossible runs that unfold spontaneously and effortlessly. The cascading rhythms Hirsh lays down are a progressive force, but Yamamoto is right there in the thick of it bashing out this wonderful melody like an aural jackhammer. 

Slower moments accentuate the lyricism of the ensemble’s playing, as in the second half of “In the Garden” or the opening and classing passages of “Real World.” On the latter, Parker’s bowed bass is a riverway cutting through the lilting sonic reveries. There’s a contemplative air in these moments where everyone is together, but also trying to cut their own way through the rock. Rising toward the peak, Yamamoto’s flying as she’s hovering on a cloud of streaming notes. Hirsh and Parker are always driving forward, but when Fowler pushes further ahead the silhouettes fade because the illumination from his horn blasts across the landscape. 

Sparks never lets up until it’s time to cut the power. This music is so free and filled with cathartic moments that it’s an immersive listening experience. Yamamoto, Fowler, Parker, and Hirsh make one hell of an ensemble and I hope they kick the tires and light it up again.

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