As jazz is an instrumental medium, it's a challenge for its players to make sociopolitical statements with its music without the benefit of liner notes to give the work context. Once the listener understands some of the ideas that inspired this creative and lyrical duo's powerfully emotional project, its passionate and percussive tracks take on a deeper meaning. That doesn't mean one can't enjoy multi-movement pieces like the opening "Hymn" -- which features Myra Melford's bluesy piano touch and some of Marty Ehrlich's most urgent and emotional alto work here -- without a scorecard. It's just that when you know that the following two songs, the thoughtful and hauntingly reflective "A Generation Comes and Another Goes" and the crafty, percussive "I See a Horizon," were inspired by the poetry of Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, a deeper meaning emerges. The duo explains that al-Jawahiri was a poet who spoke eloquently on a previous war in Iraq in the 1940s, and that they're offered here as prayers for peace and joy in Iraq and throughout the world, "wherever the sanctity of life is violated." That's heavy stuff, but it's actually hopeful in the hands of Ehrlich, whose vibrant, wistful clarinet musings counter Melford's darker piano runs. The duo also takes on more personal issues, offering a heartfelt New Orleans-inspired impressionism ("For Leroy") to pay homage to the late free jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, a former collaborator of both. Those wondering where the Spark! is amidst the prayers and hymns will have their ears perking on the crazy-making avant-garde piece "Up Do," Robin Holcomb's strange composition that Ehrlich and Melford use as an encore when they play live. The light and engaging clarinet-piano tune "Blue Delhi" was inspired by Melford's travels to India, and it's clear that she had a rollicking good time there. The set closes with a simpler arrangement of the opening track, "Hymn," that is ultimately more emotionally effective than the first. This is a mixed bag, with some solid melodic and improvisational moments amidst the free jazz oddities. But the one thing it doesn't lack is creative Spark! ~ Jonathan Widran
Down Beat (p.72) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[T[he pair achieve a chemistry that...welds their voices with a roiling inner fire."
JazzTimes (p.87) - "SPARK! evidences the duo's further commitment to creating music that adheres to traditional structural and aesthetic concepts, while stretching them to fit their distinctive needs."