There is not much footage of Sonny Sharrock, but what exists is revealing. If you go to Youtube and watch Sonny “Live at The Knitting Factory from 1988” you get a pretty good idea what this amazing talent was like. He appears on stage, a middle-aged, slightly portly, jovial African-American gentleman cradling an electric guitar. His accompanists begin a throbbing, jazzy beat and Sonny smiles and closes his eyes. He isn’t particularly worried about playing a song, or structuring a solo. He is a bird standing on a branch, waiting for the right triangulation of bait, breeze and inspiration to lift him into flight. It happens and, eyes still closed, smile switching to a grimace of concentration, he takes off. Sonny Sharrock’s solos are not technical marvels, but rather highly emotional excursions into his psyche. He claimed that he never really wanted to play guitar, rather that he was a frustrated horn player chasing the elusive sound of his hero John Coltrane. This schism is evident in his playing as he voices solos that are fat and chordal in tone, but leap into wild single-note improvisational runs, much as Coltrane did, especially in his final period. Sonny had a long history of learning his style, starting in the 1960’s appearing on Pharoah Sanders Tauhid, and (legendarily) some uncredited playing on Miles Davis’ guitar feast Tribute To Jack Johnson, then joining Herbie Mann’s groundbreaking band for the latter’s strongest run of albums. He toiled in the jazz underground in the 70’s releasing several amazing, avant-garde records, but seemingly disappeared until bassist Bill Laswell tracked him down and mentored him out of obscurity and into the spotlight where his reputation as one of the most thrilling and unique voices in jazz increased until his untimely death from heart failure in 1994.
Sharrock’s sound and catalog are not easy to get your arms around. His early work on the Herbie Mann albums is hard to spot because of the nature of his solos. One has to train their ear to listen for him, because his early work tends to blend (self-consciously one would imagine) into the overall framework of the songs. By the time of his difficult to obtain 70’s solo work, he is fully immersed in avant-garde stylings and though those albums contain some of his best playing, sometimes the music was too extreme for many listeners. Once he came back in the 80’s he branched out in many directions (and on many labels) including some heavy metal style playing with the band Machine Gun. Like other enticing figures skirting the edges along jazz, rock, avant-garde, and free-form, Sonny Sharrock is like a rare orchid: sightings are seldom, but unforgettable.
This difficulty in stylistically pinning him down is what makes 1991’s Ask The Ages the essential way “in” to Sonny Sharrock. It is a beautiful, hypnotic, intense album that fulfills the promise of a guitar player who plays his guitar like Coltrane played his sax. Produced by Bill Laswell and Sonny himself, Ask The Ages reunites Sharrock with Pharoah Sanders and throws jazz greats Elvin Jones (another Coltrane alumnus) on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass into the mix. The results are completely thrilling as Sanders and Sharrock take turns soloing in a variety of sympathetic styles. Each of the 6 songs is a universe of complex rhythm and spectacular soloing to discover. Sanders fills the role of Coltrane well on some numbers like “Who Does She Hope To Be” but each song finds its center within Sonny Sharrock’s completely un-copyable style of guitar playing. Take the final number “Once Upon A Time” where he plays beautifully melodic single lines over his own crunchy power-chording. It is a thrilling exercise in musical freedom. It feels set loose from the bonds of genre, geography or financial concern as the musicians bravely explore the outside of modern music. This is something the label Axiom specialized in, and we can thank Bill Laswell for creating a place for Sonny Sharrock and many other groundbreaking musicians. Although it lasted less than a decade in its original incarnation, Axiom was one of the great labels of the modern era, and virtually everything they released is worth hearing.
It’s really hard to compare Sonny Sharrock to any other musician because of his utterly singular take on soloing, and his lack of adherence to any “school” of jazz thought. He brings to his music the same thrilling individuality and untrained freshness that Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker or even Keith Moon brought. The excitement of finding an artist so in love with their instrument and the idea of making music that even their lack of training will not stop them is one of the fundamental reasons I listen to music. It is the promise of human individuality and meaning given flesh.
- Paul Epstein