There aren’t many musicians who need so many different band names under which to work. But Elliott Sharp has that many different ideas, sounds and styles swirling in his clean-shaven head. And, at the expense of a linear career that could earn him bigger bucks or notoriety, he has explored them all. Sharp is a composer, improviser, instrument inventor and mathematician able to play clarinet, saxophone, guitar, bass, sampler, piano, computer and instruments of his own creation — like the slab, pantar and violinoid. Since 1979, he has been based in Manhattan, making a name for himself as a freelance avant- gardist willing to collaborate with anyone and try anything, from jungle dance music to the blues to compositions based on fractals and the Fibonacci number series.
In addition to his own prolific work, Sharp has played with, among many others, the Hi Sheriffs of Blue, Mofungo, The Scene Is Now, members of fIREHOSE (as the Bootstrappers), John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz. Although Sharp writes jarring, heavily rhythmic music using tunings and rhythms based on number systems and other schemes normally associated with contemporary classical music, there’s nothing at all classical about his pounding guitar and bass rhythms or screeching bass clarinet and tenor and soprano sax. Due to its abrasive edges and sheer strangeness, Sharp’s music is, for many, an unacquirable taste.
Sharp recorded Hara, a series of duets with guitarist and flutist Dave Fulton, largely to facilitate getting gigs. On Rhythms and Blues, he offers a version of R&B on electric and acoustic guitars, clarinet and saxes. (T)here consists of one solo side recorded live in Prague; the reverse features trumpeter Lesli Dalaba and percussionist Charles Noyes.
Both Dalaba and Noyes play in Carbon (a loose and shifting group of musicians Sharp uses to play his ensemble pieces); Carbon is a clear example of how Sharp organizes his music around rhythm, with melody taking a subordinate role. Most of the tracks feature Sharp on guitar, sax or clarinet, cranking out spiky rhythms while drummers pound bass drum, congas and tom-toms. Sometimes Sharp growls too. An exotic sound, straight from downtown New York.
Although Carbon is credited on Marco Polo’s Argali/Carbon: Six Songs, the annotation never makes it clear just what that means in terms of personnel. In any case, the side with six songs is strong stuff. With Sharp’s rhythmic reed work, plenty of percussion and strange sounds from his invented instruments, the tracks clank along on the edge of chaos, but never succumb to it. “Marco Polo,” a side-long piece based on a number series, has some excellent moments, but, despite great trombone work by Jim Staley, gets a bit tedious over the course of 20 minutes.
Fractal is one of Sharp’s strongest works, six shorter pieces and the long “Not-Yet-Time,” which features some great rhythmic guitar work. It also showcases one of Sharp’s gambits — using his hands to beat out quick harmonic patterns on a bass neck, as if it were a drum. The rhythms and textures play off each other beautifully, the whip-saw guitar and thick percussion offset by bass harmonics that sound like bells ringing. (Monster Curve is a CD-only compilation of tracks from the first three Carbon albums.)
Sharp also experiments with computers and sampling technology, and uses both extensively on Virtual Stance. The extended title track is composed of samples, some of which are fascinating and/or amusing, some of which are not. The rest of the record consists of briefer pieces: half sound like the previous two albums, while the others are slower and more textured.
In the Land of the Yahoos is Sharp’s self- described pop album, meaning that he and others sing, his guitar and bass are toned down and the percussion is almost normal. An amazing LP with more variety than many of his others, it explores numerous textures and moods, dishes out surprises at every turn and displays a witty sense of humor.
Around the same time as Yahoos, Sharp turned his attentions to a new format of music, and began composing for an amplified string quartet, namely violinist David Soldier and his group. The shrill, rapid sawings of Tessalation Row (a thirteen-minute title piece plus four shorter works) make Bart¢k seem like a valium addict. (With the addition of two extensive — and stylistically consistent — new pieces, Tessalation Row was reissued on CD as Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup.) Although Sharp generally uses similar rhythms and tunings as on his rock albums, one movement mostly consists of the instruments’ bodies being used for percussion.
Thanks to his increased skill at writing for ensembles, Larynx is Sharp’s best album with Carbon. As much jazz as rock, somehow it’s neither. Constructed in six sections with five interludes, the titular piece runs over both sides of the record. Four drummers play on the opening and closing sections; the Soldier String Quartet, Jim Staley and others combine to create an amazing array of textures and rhythms. But the most inspired playing comes from Sharp himself. For the last ten minutes he pounds red- hot rhythms on bass and guitar fretboards, accompanied by frenzied drumming and dissonant violin. Awesome.
Datacide combines Fractal‘s instrumentation with the shorter framework and polished production of Land of the Yahoos, with positive results.
Semantics is a rock/jazz power trio with drummer Samm Bennett (who sometimes plays with Carbon) and saxophonist Ned Rothenberg. The group’s phenomenal debut meshes Rothenberg’s rhythmic, interweaving sax lines with Sharp’s forceful bass and guitar. The more chaotic and noisy Bone of Contention generally eschews the song structures of Semantics and is more on the jazz, if not the free jazz, side of the band’s stylistic fusion.
Since the start of the ’90s, Sharp has put an end to a dozen side projects and started a dozen more, increasing, along the way, the political content of his music and his kinship to experimental dance music. Where Carbon was a vehicle for some of Sharp’s noisiest, densest, longest experiments in the ’80s, it began transforming into a sort of industrial metal band on Datacide and solidified, for the first time ever, its lineup (as a quintet) on Tocsin. (The Orchestra Carbon album Abstract Repressionism: 1990-99, a seven-movement, hour-long composition, offers a glimpse into the band’s past.)
On the angrier Truthtable and Amusia albums, Sharp’s distorted voice howls about conspiracy theories and corruption as Zeena Parkins plays her electric harp like a lead guitar and Sharp, bassist Marc Sloan and sampler-player David Weinstein grind out sheets of rhythmic, metallic noise. On Interference and parts of Autoboot (an authorized bootleg Sharp made mixing unreleased Carbon studio tracks and excerpts from live performances), Carbon focuses less on Sharp’s paranoia in favor of more abstract instrumentals endowed, on some tracks, with the more atmospheric minimalism of ambient music.
One of Sharp’s most accessible solo records is Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Yahoos (a Russ Meyer- titled sequel to 1987’s In the Land of the Yahoos). Each of the fragmented pop songs lasting two to three minutes enlists a different avant-garde musician, from Eugene Chadbourne playing piano and singing the blues on “Return of the Pharm Boys” to Sussan Deihim wailing ethereal Middle Eastern vocals on “X-Plicit.”
If it wasn’t for the distinctly chunky sound and warbling slides of Sharp’s guitar, Terraplane would sound as if another musician made it. With David Hofstra on bass and Joseph Trump on drums, Sharp reinvents himself as the thinking-person’s bluesman. The album opens with Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” and continues by mixing Sharp’s own, convincing 12-bar compositions with Elmore James and Freddie King standards. On ‘Dyners Club, the composer moves forward half a century, performing with his guitar quartet. The band retunes its instruments to riff out-of-phase on “Residue” and explore Sonic Youth’s cacophonous terrain on “Flowtest.”
Other than Nots, a reissue of a 1982 album augmented by unreleased and rare material he recorded in the early ’80s, Sharp’s solo albums this decade aim to convert mathematical and scientific terms and theories into music. One of the best of these is Tectonics, a sophisticated record in which machine-driven techno rhythms and free jazz merge in an exploration of the deformities of the earth’s surface (which range from songs about geology to one about Newt Gingrich).
Cryptid Fragments uses the scientific term for a creature whose existence has been documented only anecdotally (like Bigfoot) as an analogy for the instruments in its title track. Sharp created the seventeen- minute “Cryptid Fragments” by giving cellist Margaret Parkins and violinist Sara Parkins a score to play. He then spent 150 hours at the computer rearranging and processing the music until what was left was not the sound of the violin and the cello but those of virtual instruments that exist only in computer memory. “Shapeshifters,” also on the album, uses a similar process to manipulate the scraping and sliding of the Soldier String Quartet.
Sharp’s avant-garde jam bands have yet to approximate the chaotic beauty of his ’80s group the Semantics. The Boodlers, a trio with Fred Chalenor on bass and Henry Franzoni on percussion, offers competent but uninteresting laid-back, slightly psychedelic avant-jazz and computer- processed noise. In its second incarnation, Bootstrappers — Sharp supplemented by bass (Thom Kotik) and percussion (Jan Kotik) — veers away from jazz and all- out noise in favor of industrial-sounding avant-garde funk. (The rhythm section on Bootstrappers is Mike Watt and George Hurley of fIREHOSE.)
Sharp’s collaborations don’t always work. In New York, an improvisation with Bachir Attar, the leader of Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka, is a case in point. On the album’s best tracks, Attar’s flutes and strings spin and soar over Sharp’s electric guitar underpinning. But the intrusion of a crudely programmed drum machine and a disequilibrium between Attar’s spiritual, buoyant playing and Sharp’s craggy, scientific jamming make it an experiment that doesn’t quite succeed. Still, like everything Sharp has done, this imaginative undertaking is better heard than ignored.