Sonny Sharrock – Ask the Ages – M.O.D. Technologies

Rediscovering one of the undervalued heroes of jazz guitar.

Sonny Sharrock – Ask the Ages [TrackList follows] – M.O.D. Technologies MOD0016, 44:37 (orig. release: 1991)[11/13/15] ****:

(Sonny Sharrock – electric guitar, co-producer; Pharoah Sanders – tenor and soprano saxophone; Elvin Jones – drums; Charnett Moffett – acoustic bass; Bill Laswell – co-producer)

Sonny Sharrock (who passed away in 1994) is one of the best guitarists many may never have heard. He primarily worked in the jazz field, but his fearless and adventurous style was typically so far out and advanced, that traditional jazz fans rarely, if ever, listened to him, which why is the reissue of Sharrock’s final jazz album, the 45-minute Ask the Ages (originally released in 1991), is an important record to discover or rediscover [Note: Sharrock’s last official work was the 1994 Space Ghost Coast to Coast soundtrack, which is not considered by most to fit into the jazz spectrum]. Sharrock made his initial recording appearance on saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ inaugural LP, Tauhid, in 1966. Sharrock subsequently teamed up with Herbie Mann’s group; and played uncredited on Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Producer/bassist Bill Laswell invited Sharrock to join the avant/punk-jazz group Last Exit in 1986; and it was thanks to Laswell that Sharrock was able to issue solo projects and collaborations with Last Exit, via two labels Laswell founded or co-founded, Enemy and Axiom [now defunct]. Thankfully, Laswell has commenced to reissue Axiom label releases, on his new imprint, M.O.D. Technologies.

During the six tracks (all credited to Sharrock) on Ask the Ages, Sharrock is joined by old friend Sanders, drummer Elvin Jones (both alums from John Coltrane’s group), and acoustic bassist Charnett Moffett (a former member of Ornette Coleman’s Primetime band). The quartet opens with the blazing, imposing, “Promises Kept,” where Sharrock showcases his frontward auditory attack and proves he could also provide a melodic slant. After the intro, Sanders takes the first solo, and goes all-out with saxophone shrieks and skitters. Sharrock then re-enters and he and Sanders veer together through a tumultuous section, which is when outsider jazz elements and hard rock guitar components overlap. During the tune’s second half, Moffett and Jones also furnish some head-changing solos. The album’s most melodic (and shortest, at 4:42) tune is the ruminating ballad “Who Does She Hope to Be,” which establishes how the foursome could be subtle and soft and show a lyrical characteristic, in particular Moffett’s transcendent bass pulse.

The CD’s cornerstone belongs to two lengthy pieces which emanated from a specific jam: “Little Rock” (which is listed in the CD notes at 7:12 but actually clocks in at 6:36) and “As We Used to Sing” (which is supposed to be 7:45 but is 7:33 on the CD). Jones and Moffett construct the rhythmic foundation for “Little Rock,” while Sharrock and Sanders supply rebellious improvisations. Sharrock swerves closer to rock territory, while Sanders freely swings with a sure tone which evokes but does not copy Coltrane. One of the highlights of the record—and this cut—is hearing Sanders perform some of his most exceptional playing of the ‘90s. During the introduction for “As We Used to Sing” Sharrock doubles himself by means of overdubbed guitars (which creates a ringing effect) and then jettisons the overdubbing and blasts away like Hendrix. When Sanders takes the spotlight, he displays his intrepid phrasing and couples that with an unpredictably perfect harmonic voicing which is keenly risk-taking and yet clearly rhapsodic. Sharrock counterpoints Sanders’ phrasing with a beautifully contoured context.

Sharrock concludes with two memorable pieces. The 9:32 “Many Mansions” features Sanders’ impassioned sax soloing, Jones’ demonstrative polyrhythmic percussion, and Sharrock’s superlative and downright declarative guitar—when he starts to really shred it makes most other guitarists in any genre sound like kids plucking ukulele. Moffett, unfortunately, is sometimes lost in the amplified outpouring. “Many Mansions” largely benefits Sharrock, but the 6:30 closer, “Once Upon A Time,” gives the focus to Jones. He utilizes forceful toms, while the rest of the band mostly maintains a recurring theme. After all of the previous free-jazz, free-for-all “Once Upon A Time” comes as an interesting way to (somewhat) calm the proceedings down. The digipak package is lean: no historical liner notes (which would have been a welcome addition). The remastering is well done, and helps push this already aggressive material further outward and upward.

TrackList: Promises Kept; Who Does She Hope to Be; Little Rock; As We Used to Sing; Many Mansions; Once Upon a Time.

—Doug Simpson

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