Monday, June 25, 2012

Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages

Some twenty-five ago, while flipping channels, YHB came across a PBS program that looked to be from the late 1960s or early 1970s.  Comedian Bill Cosby was hosting a show featuring jazz musicians and there was band that didn't particularly make any impact, so it was just about time to either turn the TV off or find another channel, when, suddenly, a guitarist launched into a solo that was mesmerizing and mind-blowing.  Rather than the clean, liquid tones of most jazz guitarists, this buy used feedback, lightning-quick strumming, and effects that reminded vaguely of Jimi Hendrix.  Then, the tune ended and the program went elsewhere without identifying who this incredible musician was.

Then, in 1991, when jazz had become a major interest/preoccupation, a review was read for an album called Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock and the writer raved about the recording and the pyrotechnics of the guitarist.  Because the tenor and soprano saxophonist was Pharoah Sanders and the drummer was Elvin Jones, both former players with the great John Coltrane, who was then occupying a great deal of listening time for YHB, the album took on added interest.  Little did I know . . .

From the first track, "Promises Kept," the powerful playing was stirring.  Sanders, whose fiery performances of the 1960s and first half of the 1970s, had given way to a more melodic, peaceful style, hearkened back to the glory days of such great albums as Karma (covered in this blog recently) and blew with an intensity and passion unheard for years.  Jones, always a master of polyrhythmic swing, plays tremendously on this album.  And, the youngster in the group, bassist Charnett Moffett, whose father, Charles, was a great drummer, holds down the bottom and keeps a strong pulse going for his elders (though they play as if they were of Moffett's age!)

After Sanders' lengthy and impressive solo, Sharrock launched right in and that sound immediately connected me back to that TV show from a few years back.  That was a very cool surprise--never would have expected that!

Surprising, too, after the fireworks of that opening tune is the gorgeously-played ballad, "Who Does She Hope to Be?" which showed that Sharrock, for all the mindboggling technique, blazing speed and monster sound is a master musician who could tap into the soul of a melodic piece with as much effect as in the faster tempo material.

"Little Rock" and "As We Used to Sing" are also top-notch flights of creative power and ability and the extremely tight playing of the quartet, who hadn't performed together previous to this date, is something to behold.

The highlight, though, and truly one of the great pieces of music YHB has ever heard is the earth-shattering nine-and-a-half minute excursion into hyperdrive, "Many Mansions."  Sanders again blows with an sustained intensity and interest that has to be heard to be believed, but then is followed by Sharrock's unbelievable shredding, sliding and screaming soloing.  It really can't be described by a total amateur.  Amazingly, Jones is third-fiddle on this record and he has a great, rumbling and crashing solo on this masterpiece of a tune.  Moffett, meantime, continues to support these masters with suppleness and strength.

At the time this album came out, I didn't know much about the co-producer Bill Laswell, nor was I aware that the label, Axiom, that released this essential album as an imprint of Island Records was his.  Nor was it known to me that Laswell had tracked Sharrock down (he was a truck driver and caretaker for mentally challenged children) after he had given up music and worked on a comeback with him, including the delightfully chaotic quartet, Last Exit, which will soon be profiled here.  Laswell's production is typically clear and clean, with the players recorded very skillfully to maximize their solos.  As a bassist, Laswell gave particular attention, it seems to me, to bringing Moffett's bass up front more so he could be given the opportunity to show his skills amongst his elder masters.

Moreover, Sharrock's recording debut came courtesy of Sanders and his 1967 album, Tauhid.  Sharrock had also recorded with Miles Davis on this A Tribute to Jack Johnson sessions in 1970, though most of his contributions were edited out (they can be heard, however, on the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box set, which will be one of the "For Fanatics Only?" entries on this blog one day) and what was left was uncredited.

The remarkable Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994)

As too often happens, Sharrock was on the verge of signing his first major label record deal in 1994 when he suddenly had a massive fatal heart attack.  He was only 53.  Even though he died too soon and before he could present, perhaps, his music to larger audiences, Sharrock's work with Laswell, both in solo and group presentations, including Last Exit and records like Ask the Ages, endure. 

If there is a reader who happens upon this entry, has not expressed much interest in jazz, has never heard Sonny Sharrock, but enjoys masterful guitar and ensemble playing, you simply cannot do better than to give Ask the Ages a try.

Sonny Sharrock:  Ask the Ages (Axiom, 1991)

1.  Promises Kept  9:43
2.  Who Does She Hope to Be?  4:41
3.  Little Rock  7:12
4.  As We Used to Sing  7:45
5.  Many Mansions  9:31
6.  Once Upon a Time  6:26

No comments:

Post a Comment