Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sharrock steady and more

do you remember in "Boyz in the Hood" when "Ooh Child" comes on Laurence Fishburne's car stereo and he turns it up and he's all like, "Man, I love this *song*!" and he's just totally groovin' and whatnot? there's a couple parts like that in "Jackie Brown" too--scenes of people just blissing out listening to music.

anyway, there was this one time where i was DJing the early morning show at WKCR and i threw on "Who Does She Hope to Be?" which is this gorgeous ballad from Sonny Sharrock's "Ask the Ages" record. the song played for a little bit and then the phone rang. i always loved getting calls from listeners, even if they were outraged "you call this jazz?" complains. but anyway, i pick up and this dude was like, "Man, thank you so much for playing this. i love this *song*! i'm just driving to work and it sounds so nice." i'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. i remember that the image of Laurence Fishburne groovin' out popped into my head; i just imagined this guy cruising to work in a convertible, wearing shades and basking in the sun, just chilling out listening to Sonny.

Sharrock's music delivers that direct shot of emotion more than almost anyone else's that i've heard. his best performances accomplish his central mission, as stated by the man himself: "I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings... I've been trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song. I know it's possible." that's obviously some seriously deep shit. it's funny, b/c there were definitely times when Sonny went perilously far in one or the other direction. anyone who's heard "High Life" knows that his '80s solo work could verge on smooth jazz, and Last Exit is sort of the flip side, where he's just chasing the noise most of the time.

i respect both of those directions, but i don't think they're necessarily where the terror and the beauty truly lived together. for my money, those vibes united best on "Guitar," his solo disc from '86. yeah, i know that "Black Woman" and "Monkey Pockie Boo" have that wild free-jazz cache, but neither of those is a true classic in my opinion. "Guitar" is quite simply one of my favorite records ever.

it's a simple concept really. on most of the tracks, Sonny lays down a simple, jangly melodic vamp and then he solos over it. that's it. most of the pieces are real short. some of the record is really over the top. "Black Bottom" is this really raunchy blues thing, and "Blind Willie" is like this swirly, psychedelic FX fest.

but some of the tracks are just compltely pure and free. "Devils Doll Baby" is maybe the purest Sharrock recording i can think of. it's just this free extrapolation thing that kind of worries over this one melodic fragment. meanwhile there's a track of what amounts to howling static in the background. there's your terror and beauty right there. the logical melodic movement of the piece and the way it keeps returning to this sort of center-of-gravity motif remind me of John Fahey's freer stuff. at their best, both guitarists played what i've referred to as Total Music. the Fucking Champs (or their label) sorta coined that term but they don't really deserve it. basically i use it to refer to that point when a musician has totally broken free of genre and is just playing him- or herself. it's like the sound of freedom or something, where the musician just has so much music at the fingertips that it just sort of happens. total music is usually solo and is usually at least partially improvised and is almost always made in the later stages of a musician's career; it flirts w/ genre but isn't contained by it. Fahey is probably my number one in this regard, but Sharrock gets there from time to time. Dave Burrell is another one.

anyway, i really really love "Princess Sonata," the suite of four tracks at the end of "Guitar." the first and last parts are pretty fleshed out but the middle two are just these weird miniature curiosities. "Like Voices of Sleeping Birds" has this pleasant, leisurely strumming in the background, and then over top of that Sonny is just sort of wigging out with the slide. the lead is noisy but not angry; it just sounds like he's having fun wringing loopy sounds out of the instrument, kind of using it as a noisemaker. that one's very brief.

the real sleeper track on the album is the next one, "Flowers Laugh." it's got this stately, palate-cleansing prelude and then it moves into this almost goofy sounding lopsided staccato vamp. Sonny's lead part over it is this trilly, frilly thing. his tone is so amazingly brittle and hollow. it definitely sounds like a one-take kind of a deal; he just kind of explores this one trilling effect and trails off as the rhythm track moves out of the vamp. it's a tiny enigma.

"Guitar" is sorely in need of reissuing. it's fucking unadulterated Sonny, and there's not a lot of his stuff you can really say that about. a lot of his leader records--like "Sieze the Rainbow," for example--are fun, but kind of clunky and unsatisfying. and as i said, i enjoy Last Exit and the early "Black Woman"-type stuff just fine, but they do not give you a flavor of Sonny the brilliant melodist and composer whatsoever. yes, he's a pioneering noise guitarist, but that is literally only half of what makes him special. "Guitar" lays it all out for you. i only wish he had recorded a second volume of solos.

there's been some nice Sharrock web activity of late, namely this lovely entry at (where else?) Destination Izzout, which has basically become a friendly neighborhood trading post for free-jazz nerds like myself. they post the "Space Ghost" tracks. yeah, the "Space Ghost" tracks. go there to see what the hell i'm talking about. also, as the D-O boys say, don't neglect the Sweet Butterfingers site run by the indefatigable Margaret Davis.

in other Sonny news, don't think a lot of folks know that he actually has had his own official website,, for quite some time. it's maintained by someone named Netty, whom i suspect is a relative. the coolest part of this site is the media archive, which contains some very, very brief (like 10 seconds apiece) viddies of Sonny, including one of him performing with... Bill Cosby! very cool. there's a few things on YouTube as well, including a Last Exit clip uploaded by the Flying Luttenbachers' Weasel Walter which has the caption "mountains of cocaine" or something like that.

anyway, here are some tracks to check out:

Devils Doll Baby

Flowers Laugh

(both from "Guitar," 1986)

Who Does She Hope to Be? ["i love this *song*!"]

(from "Ask the Ages," 1991)

Your Eyes

[this one's a guilty pleasure and may horrify some. there's no denying its overwhelming resemblance to dentist's-office jazz. but it's so damn catchy and twangy all the same. it's still got that sweet bite, even though you know you'd run screaming if you didn't know it was Sonny.]

(from "Highlife," 1990)


1) has anyone heard any of the post-Sonny recordings by Linda Sharrock? discovered this weird label, Quinton, that has some of her late stuff, described as singer-songwriter material. do folks know if she's alive? and if so, whereabouts is she? does she perform?

2) has anyone heard this brand new limited edition beast? i so want this. i need this. but i'm holding out for a potential CD release. i love vinyl, but my LPs just don't get listened to w/ the frequency that they should.

3) what do people think of the weirdo Sonny/Linda collabo "Paradise"?


anyway, saw Werner Herzog's "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" over the weekend. had been waiting to dig this one forever and was faintly disappointed. next to Ross McElwee, Herzog is my favorite documentary dude, but i gotta say, i'm not crazy about the fiction films of his that i've seen. like "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre," "Kaspar" is a kind of episodic mood piece, centered around one actor.

"Kaspar" is basically about this dude who, after being raised in total seclusion for 20 or so years, suddenly appears in this small German village. it's based on a true story from the 1800s. Herzog's treats Kaspar's story as social critique; like so many other "noble savage" sorts of tales, Kaspar makes all the so-called "rational" villagers who attempt to analyze him and teach him the way of the world look silly. the message becomes clear very quickly: Kaspar's untrained mind is purer and more insightful than all these scholarly types. but that whole thing grows a bit tiresome.

that said, the movie has some really poetic, understated sequences, and Bruno S. does an awesome job in the title role. he's a very charming character, always marching about stiffly with his eyes opened comically wide. i was surprised to find out that Bruno S. actually did suffer horrible abuse as a child, so maybe he's drawing on that a bit in his portrayal of Kaspar's trauma.

anyway, i liked the movie, but didn't love it the way i do Herzog's docs, such as "Grizzly Man," "The White Diamond" and (my favorite) "Herdsmen of the Sun," which is this incredible but hard-to-find film about the strange androgynous mating rituals practiced by the Wodaabe people of the Sahara. maybe it's that i miss his awesomely Teutonic narration? or maybe it's just that i find his fiction films slow and overly deliberate. i know it's sacrilege, but i felt that way about "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarrldo" too. i enjoyed them, but i sort of felt like i got the point near the beginning and didn't necessarily need to check out the whole thing. anyway, a lot of folks will hate me for saying that.


also, i'm finally realizing for real why "Dortmund (1976)" is a lot of people's favorite Braxton recording. so fucking tight and focused. the band is just locked. the Braxton/George Lewis frontline is unstoppable. just picked up "Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983" featuring Lewis and i can't wait to dig in. i know there are two Braxton/Lewis duo discs, and i remember them being smokin' but i haven't heard them in years.

quick shout-out to Braxton's Arista LP, "For Trio," which is Composition 76. it's two sidelong readings of the same piece, which is like this weird episodic, modular thing, each w/ different personnel. one awesome feature of the record is the stereo separation. on each side, Brax is in the middle, flanked on side one by Douglas Ewart and Henry Threadgill and on the other by Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. heavy-ass company. this is maybe Braxton's most overtly AACM-y document, in that it's very sparse, rigorous, experimental and process-oriented ,and very, very committed to multi-instrumentalism. the players switch axes after almost every phrase. it's a very spatial, conceptual sort of a thing. very choppy, with very little sense of flow. but the rigor becomes satisfying and it's cool to compare the versions. gotta love the LP, with its photos of the instrument menagerie at the session, including Threadgill's wall of hubcaps.


the improvising guitarist said...

Q: …has anyone heard any of the post-Sonny recordings by Linda Sharrock?

I heard couple of things by her, both with Wolfgang Puschnig, one with Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Kinda ECM-ish (if that makes any sense).

…i'm finally realizing for real why "Dortmund (1976)" is a lot of people's favorite Braxton recording.

Might be tied with Willisau (Quartet) 1991 as my favorite Braxton. Unfortunately I lost my copy of Dortmund during a move (boo), and HAT have deleted it from their catalog (double boo).

S, tig

Phil Freeman said...

I have Paradise. It was reissued a couple of years ago on the Water label, and it's well worth checking out. The cover art makes it look like some kind of weird disco-fusion thing, but it's not - there are some funky tracks, but Linda's vocals and Sonny's guitar are just too damn harsh to ever get all the way slicked back.

Anonymous said...

The Butterfingers discography lists:

Sonny Sharrock, unissued solo session, WKCR-FM, 2/9/87

maybe someday...