The guitar is an unwieldy jazz instrument. It lacks the earthiness and immediacy of the saxophone, the attack and clarity of the trumpet or the sheer range of the piano — no wonder so few of the esteemed jazz greats are guitar players. Crippled gypsies, the rare be-bopper and fusioners aside, even the buffs would be hard-pressed to name ten monumental jazz guitarists. In fact, Sonny Sharrock, who was one of those, originally wanted to be a tenor saxophonist. Unfortunately for him (not his fans), asthma forced him to pick up the guitar instead — although he occasionally claimed to be a tenor sax player with really weird intonation. John Coltrane may have been his single greatest influence, but the blues — in the guise of the mythical guitar player standing at the crossroads — left an indelible mark on Sharrock’s oeuvre.
On Black Woman, presumably an ode to Sharrock’s wife, Linda, Sonny and crew whip up a hell of a maelstrom. Sharrock’s most obviously avant-garde statement, the album also contains a kind of theme song in “Blind Willy,” here played solo (later to re-appear in Last Exit sets and almost two decades later on Guitar). What is striking about this version of “Blind Willy,” ostensibly a tribute to Blind Willie Johnson but perhaps also to Blind Willie McTell, is Sharrock’s audible breathing throughout the piece, pacing his phrases as a reed player would. The effect is intimate (and mildly unsettling) but entirely part of Sharrock’s conception and approach to his instrument. The remainder of Black Woman is entirely of its era, a slab of ESP Disk-like free jazz, including a stellar performance by the oft-cited but little-recorded drummer Milford Graves. Also notable is Linda’s contribution, especially on the title track. The range of emotion — praise, worship, jubilation, eroticism, horror, torture — present in her wordless vocals is remarkable and entirely connected to the rest of what’s going on. Much as Abbey Lincoln would do for Max Roach, Linda Sharrock’s vocal lines accent rather than detract from the music, an integral part of the overall sound rather than a focal point in and of itself. Inexplicably re- issued with Wayne Henderson’s soul-jazz statement, People Get Ready, in 2000, Black Woman is a vital item in Sharrock’s catalogue.
Something of a follow-up, co-credited to Linda and Sonny, Paradise is a sometimes beautiful, often underwhelming, stab at fusion, complete with moog, mellotron and Fender Rhodes keyboards. Linda’s vocal contributions lose much of their potency and become grating long before the album ends.
Skip nearly a decade, during which Sonny lived in relative obscurity, until the mid-1980s when he reappeared in the free jazz super group Last Exit alongside Bill Laswell, Peter Brotzmann and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Some of Sharrock’s most unhinged, incendiary performances are found on Last Exit recordings.
With Laswell’s patronage, Sharrock had ample opportunity to perform and record in the latter half of the 1980s. The culmination of this period as leader is the monumental Guitar, overdubbed solo Sharrock produced by Laswell. It’s a subtle examination of just what can be accomplished with a fistful of wires, some pickups and an amplifier. Those expecting skronk will be surprised but not disappointed as Sharrock lays down nine gorgeous, almost ballad-like, pieces. This is the sound of a master musician given enough studio time to fully realize his vision. Highlights are many, including another version of “Blind Willie,” the serenity of “Broken Toys” and the slide workout “Like Voices of Sleeping Birds.”
The studio and live albums that rounded out the 1980s are ultimately disappointing, sometimes veering into banal funk or R&B. Sharrock’s intensity of purpose always manages to shine (sometimes burn) through, but these, taken as a whole, do not add much to his legacy. The album with Skopelitis features duets not dissimilar from the overdubbed solos on Guitar. Skopelitis adds a compelling Eastern feel to these pieces through the use of such exotic instruments as the tar, saz and Coral sitar.
Ask the Ages is, hands down, Sharrock’s finest hour, and the ideal album to play for those who claim to hate jazz guitar. Joined by the mighty Elvin Jones (the drummer in John Coltrane’s “classic quartet”) and Pharaoh Sanders (another Coltrane associate) on tenor and soprano sax, Sharrock creates his most obviously jazz-influenced recording, a summation of everything he had learned plus confidence as a composer that was only hinted at before. While Roger McGuinn is often credited with his attempt to invoke Coltrane’s sound on the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Sharrock’s longer-standing commitment and understanding of Trane’s music, especially his post-A Love Supreme experimentation, mark his playing as the most obvious extension of Coltrane’s technique and musical vision as applied to the electric guitar. Highlights abound on this one, from the blasting “Promises Kept” to the delicate, sweeping lines of “Once Upon a Time,” which rides atop Jones’s evolving mallet solo. An essential album and the last legitimate release before Sharrock’s death in 1994.
Space Ghost: Coast to Coast contains Sharrock’s contributions to the popular cartoon show. More than a curiosity, it includes some inspired playing from Sharrock and flailing from a backup band trying to keep up. Funny and off-the-cuff but worth a listen nonetheless. Into Another Light is a needless compilation hand- picked by Laswell, mostly from Guitar and Ask the Ages — albums which must be heard in their entirety.