photo by dino perrucci
In one of the most unlikely locations for such a summit, the Stanhope House served as the site for a high-energy evening pairing one of the torchbearers of the acid jazz movement with some Young Turks poised to make their mark.

Located about 50 miles from the George Washington Bridge in Stanhope, N.J., the venerable roadhouse has played host to scores of name acts over the years and continues to play a vital role providing blues-based music as well as satisfying fans of the burgeoning jam band scene.

Veteran guitarist and bandleader Melvin Sparks may have held the deserved headline status, but The Thang, did more than did their duty with a short, but impressive opening set.

The show marked the second time the bands had shared a bill after meeting for the first time during a private function last summer, but as evidenced by the Stanhope show, the musical balance was just right.

New York-based Sparks not only used the occasion to debut his new drummer Carter McLean who recently took the place of Tony Mason, but also to workout a number of selections that will be on his new CD tentatively titled What You Hear is What You Get which is expected to be released in late January. McLean, who cut his teeth with Sparks and his band during a recent two-day session where 10 tracks were recorded for the up-coming release, ably made his presence felt as the band opened with a driving rendition of Rusty Bryant's "Fire Eater."

Sparks may be the leader of the band, but it was his players who really turned heads on the opening number. Buoyed by McLean's drumming and Sparks' rhythm guitar, Joe Herbek delivered a potent solo on saxophone while George Papageorge added a heavy Hammond B-3 organ wash to the churning sound. Bassist Tim Luntzel, also a relatively new addition, failed to keep pace with his cohorts for the first offering of the evening, but was on the same page for the remainder of the show, finding his footing on second tune, an upbeat version of Karl Denson's "Dance Lesson #2."

Denson and Sparks are no strangers on stage or in the studio. Sparks played on the aforementioned track during the sessions for Denson's most recent release and has sat in from time to time with the sax man. He also joined Denson with his former outfit, the now-defunct Greyboy All-Stars.

"The energy was really high during the sessions," said Sparks before his set in reference to his recent studio work. "I'm really excited about this album. We have a really good sound right now and I'm really looking forward to doing a lot with this band in the New Year."

Sparks said the new album, which features guest appearances by organ legend Ruben Wilson and Texas-based sax player Topaz, will be mainly instrumental originals, but does include a pair of covers: James Brown's "Funky Good Time" and Barry Gordy's standard, "Money (That's What I Want)."

Leaning heavily on tried and true covers, Sparks led the band through an upbeat version of Jimmy Smith's "Back at The Chicken Shack," punctuating the classic organ romp with his signature staccato-styled guitar breaks. The song, however also provided Papageorge and Herbek ample time to solo.

"Blues don't hurt no one," Sparks said to the appreciative crowd that had gathered in front of the stage as he took the opportunity to introduce a new original, "Another Joe" which is slated to be on the up-coming release. Sparks kept the momentum going with "Money" as Herbek and Papageorge again stood out with McLean and Luntzel locking in nicely.

If the first set served as a time for Sparks and company to limber up, then the closing set was more of the same. In addition to such timeless pieces as Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," a double dose of Leon Spencer ("The Stinker" and "Hot Dog") and "Whip Wop" which often finds its way into Denson's sets, were all well-received by the audience, Sparks also debuted the title track from his up-coming disc: "What You Hear is What You Get."

Many in attendance made the unfortunate error of not showing up in time for The Thang's opening set. Less than two months after the release of their debut effort, GrooveJazz Vol. 1, word has been spreading about the Hartford, Conn. based instrumentalists who have been playing an increasing number of dates in the New England area and will be opening for John Scofield when he visits Hartford in February.

The band, faced with tight time constraints, was able to make the most of its 55-minute set where it knocked out eight original tunes, including one never before played in concert. Recent dates in the band's hometown have given The Thang an opportunity to bring additional musicians on stage including Dickie Betts keyboardist Matt Zeiner as well as a host of horn players, but for the Stanhope gig, the band, missing trombone player Rob Volo, performed as a four-piece lineup. Even without the added players, The Thang still packed a punch. Steeped in an acidic, groove-jazz style the band opened with "The Feeling" which was carried by the B-3 work of Barry Seelen.

Coincidentally, there was another connection between the bands that shared the stage that night as Papageorge and Seelen were linked by their ties to b>Mighty Sam McLain's band, a group Seelen regularly plays with and one that Papageorge used to tour with. Seelen was spot on throughout the evening as he and guitarist Mike Bradley fed off each other's energy while the rhythm section of Marc Balling and David Shuman were flawless throughout.

The third offering of the night, "Bomb Jazz," had Seelen and Shuman driving the pace with Bradley demonstrating some chops. Seelen again took ample space to step out on "Barry's Blues" which led into an extended version of "Shaker" -- a wah-wah infused Bradley composition. "Sidewall," a piece written by Balling, was introduced by Bradley as "about two minutes long and packed with action." He wasn't lying. The Thang closed its set by debuting "Fast One," a new song never-before played live in concert.

Chris Cowles
JamBase | Jersey
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[Published on: 12/10/01]

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