Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Living together in one song: The symbiotic sweetness and brutality of Sonny Sharrock's 'Guitar'

"Remember that your improvisation must have feeling. It must swing and it must have beauty, be it the fragile beauty of a snowflake or the terrible beauty of an erupting volcano." —Sonny Sharrock

"In the last few years, 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. I remember seeing John Coltrane standing there, his saxophone screaming; hearing the Flamingos sing at the Apollo. All that pretty music! I hope I'm as greedy as those musicians were. I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings. ... I want it all!" —Sonny Sharrock, 1991

Sonny Sharrock's Guitar, my favorite album by my favorite guitarist, is now on Bandcamp, in a newly remastered edition courtesy of its producer — and Sharrock's frequent collaborator — Bill Laswell. (I spoke with Laswell about Last Exit and Sharrock in general during our 2011 interview.) I love Black Woman and, of course, the masterful Ask the Ages (which Laswell also remastered and reissued a couple years back, though I'm not sure that edition is available digitally), but ever since I first heard Guitar in the early 2000s, I've thought of this 1986 release as the ultimate Sharrock statement, the final word on his doctrine of "sweetness and brutality."

There are several different types of pieces on the record, but the most prevalent follow a simple structure, where Sharrock sets up a cleaned-tone simple melody or chord structure on one track and then solos over it on another track with that classic grimy distortion of his. I could be mistaken, but I don't think Sharrock ever played shows like this, i.e., using live looping or somesuch; I believe this was entirely a multitracked studio creation. But it's a shame he never went further with the concept, at least in a documented setting, because it seems to capture the absolute essence of his concept.

I'm listening to "Princess and the Magician" right now, the first section of the four-part "Princess Sonata" suite that concludes the album. The vamp Sharrock sets up at the outset has a bright, hopeful quality. The lead-guitar "voice" enters quickly, feeling out the territory, and then entering into this kind of cyclonic dance, gradually picking up momentum and grit. There are moments when his adornment of the melody starts to resemble outright defacement, and it's obvious from the many stories of him leaving audiences aghast when playing Herbie Mann and others that many saw him purely as a chaos agent. But to me, the sweetness and the brutality of this music are entirely symbiotic; it's almost as though for Sharrock, there was no greater expression of his love for sublime melody than to slather it with aural exhaust, a brittle, snarling tangle of sound-mucus.

Last Exit was undoubtedly a powerful statement in its own right, but to me, the reason Guitar is so essential is because of this central dance of song and its opposite, the most tender, peaceful lullaby and the rawest, most unhinged noise. This dichotomy was obviously a central feature of Sharrock's idol John Coltrane's art as well — he also loved to set up a haunting melody and then systematically blow it to bits. But I'm not sure that practice, that perverse and revelatory blur of clashing emotional colors, has ever been captured on record in such a distilled and concise way. (That's another strength of Guitar — it is not a long record, and the pieces themselves hover around the four- or five-minute mark; there is "free jazz" in this music but it does not sprawl; it is fundamentally an album of songs.)

Other tracks take different approaches: the bluesy "Black Bottom" piles on multiple layers, including a track of this weird sort of warped, unsettled distortion, like a river of sludge flowing slowly underneath the rest of the song, and, by the end, a second lead voice; "Kula-Mae" is the album's outright rocker, which after a brief overture, turns into a swaggering shuffle that, thanks to Sharrock's engulfing fire-bath lead, sounds like a bar band playing in hell; "Devils Doll Baby," also featuring that sludgy textural effect in the background, is a more static sound-object, a contemplation of a few evocative licks that braids the noise and the melody together so tightly that they become a single, writhing mass; "Like Voices of Sleeping Birds" (another part of the "Princess Sonata") features Sharrock using his slide to achieve this kind of mind-warping sonic wobble, a lead voice that lurches drunkenly across the stage of the sound in a kind of absurdist contrast to the tranquil chord sequence; and of course "Blind Willie," one of Sharrock's anthems, first presented in acoustic form on Black Woman and here as a kind of poetic, rumbling electro-psalm, contrasting bagpipe-like bursts of melody (Sharrock uses an odd, synth-like effect here that doesn't appear elsewhere on the album) with swampy, deliberate soloing.

Overall, the record is so insanely pleasurable and engaging that in revisiting it, I catch myself wondering why all music can't organize itself by such simple logic, i.e., you set out a very basic framework (in this case, the struggle between noise and melody) and explore its infinite variations. But few musicians have such a stark kind of conviction about what they do. It's hard not to think about Sonny without thinking about what could have been; he released another classic, Ask the Ages, in '91, seemingly to great acclaim, and, according to some sources, was on the verge of signing a major-label deal when he died of a heart attack in '94 at age 53. But I'll always be thankful that the Sonny Sharrock Doctrine was captured so aptly, so lovingly, with such shattering clarity as it was on Guitar. Everything he stood for is on this record, and as far as the feeling of music is concerned, I regard essentially as a religious text. Dive in, again or for the first time, and go with Sonny to the very end.


*Check out Bill Laswell's Bandcamp page for more Sonny, including a newly remastered version of the very fine full-band album Seize the Rainbow and various Last Exit recordings. And head on over to the Trost label page for a Sharrock / Peter Brötzmann live duo album that's a fascinating complement to their work together in Last Exit.

*Do not miss this outstanding 2016 Sharrock feature at Premier Guitar, in which Ted Drozdowski tells the complete Sharrock story in as great of detail as I've ever read, with help from Sharrock's daughter, admirers such as Carlos Santana (who memorably states that "if you want to get a tone like Sonny Sharrock ... you have to be really willing to die"), Henry Kaiser and others. There's also a nice selection of live videos at the end.

*The quote about the snowflake and the volcano comes from this stunningly eloquent as-told-to Sharrock treatise on what it means to improvise. They should pass this out on the first day of classes at every music school in the world.

*Margaret Davis's "Sweet Butterfingers" tribute compilation, which, in its original paper zine form was invaluable to me when I was first getting into Sonny's music, is online in full, including archived interviews, tributes, obits and a discography.

 *I talked to Melvin Gibbs about Sonny when I interviewed him in 2011.

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