Sparks was born in 1973 in Corsicana, Texas, into a musical family and was playing the organ at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church by the age of six. “My mom was a gospel organist and pianist at the church, so she showed me all the popular church songs of the day,” he recalls. “And then my dad pushed the jazz thing. He was a trumpet player and a pure bebop man. Dizzy Gillespie was his favorite trumpeter, but he also loved Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Count Basie, so I grew up listening to all that music. Later, he introduced me to Miles Davis and used to play Kind of Blue for me. He also introduced me to Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, and that’s how I learned to play the organ. Also, my daddy was a big fan of Albert King, Albert Collins, B.B. King and Freddie King. That’s how he got me interested in the blues, too.”
After high school, Sparks studied music at Eastfield College in Mesquite near Dallas. During that time, he met and joined Kirk Franklin’s gospel group. From 1992 to 2005, he worked as Franklin’s musical director, touring and contributing to albums such as Kirk Franklin & the Holy Family (1993), Nu Nation Project (1998) and the masterpiece The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin (2002). An in-demand session musician, Sparks has collaborated with gospel luminaries such as Fred Hammond, CeCe Winans and Donnie McClurkin, as well as artists from the jazz and R&B worlds such as Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Lalah Hathaway, Kirk Whalum, Les McCann, Natalie Cole and Nancy Wilson. He was a key member of trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s funk-jazz group RH Factor and contributed to the albums Hard Groove (2003), Strength (2004) and Distractions (2006). Since 2016, Sparks has been a regular member of the acclaimed jam band Snarky Puppy, with whom he can be heard on the 2016 Grammy-winning album Culcha Vulcha and the forthcoming 2019 album Immigrance. His first album as a leader, the 2019 release Schizophrenia: The Yang Project, featured contributions from Hargrove, Marcus Miller, Michael League of Snarky Puppy and many others.
The Hammond B-3 organ that Sparks received as a gift from his parents for his 16th birthday and still plays today is just one of the many keyboards in his current arsenal of instruments. He favors vintage gear, including the Mellotron 4000, Hohner D-6 Clavinet, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Mini-Moog, Oberheim OBXA, ARP Odyssey and Prophet-5, all of which had their heyday in the 1970s. I love all those keyboards from that era,” he says. “They just have a different character.” Those vintage keyboards, which helped Sparks achieve a distinctive voice as an in-demand sideman and studio musician, were used on Schizophrenia and now Paranoia. – Bill Milkowski