ED FLYNN: ....Welcome to "Sounds and Voices of the Avant-Garde," a new WPKN series featuring an in-depth look at the musicians who have pushed jazz improvisation outside its mainstream limits. Our debut program features guitarist Sonny Sharrock, who has led his own band for several years. Sonny's connection with jazz and improvised music began in 1966 as a side man for Pharoah Sanders' monumental recording "Tauhid." Sonny's association with the exploding avant-garde scene of New York in the late 1960's continued by appearing on recordings by Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Marzette Watts. Sonny worked with Herbie Mann in the early '70's, as well as occasionally releasing his own records, which now remain collectors' items. After a hiatus in the late '70's, Sonny Sharrock returned to the scene in the early '80's, working with producer-bassist Bill Laswell in the band Material, as well as Last Exit, a now-legendary name in the world of improvised music. Since the mid-'80's, Sonny has been concentrating on his career as a guitarist and bandleader, forging new ideas in the realm of creative music. My interview with Sonny took place on May 1st, 1993 before a concert at Performance Space 122 in New York City. 


....I understand you're working on some new material, possibly for a forthcoming album? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah. We started getting that together, I think, when we did the Knitting Factory. That was the first time we did the new music. My management wanted me to get busy writing new songs and a newer, a different, kind of thing, way of playing than we'd been playing, to get ready in hopes there's a new album, hopes they will be making a deal soon. 

ED FLYNN: Very good. Let's talk about your current band, the musicians that you have and the role that you feel they contribute to the overall sound as individuals. 

SONNY SHARROCK: Right. Okay. The person who's been in the band the longest is Abe Speller, one of the drummers, and there're two drummers, and lots of times people ask me if there's a lead drummer and a second drummer. No, they're both equal, and you know, I need that power of the two drummers. And they both play equally. And Lance Carter's the other drummer; he's been with the band for about three or four years now. And Charles Baldwin joined us on bass, and I think it was three years ago, from Philadelphia, and Dave Snider on keyboard. And I'm as happy as you can get [laughs]. Those're the greatest cats in the world, man, really. Like, you knoow, whenever I play with them I'm inspired. They always inspire me. Sometimes they drive me hard, like we could play a couple of days in a row--I am really tired because they really wear me out. 

ED FLYNN: What is the idea behind having two drummers? 

SONNY SHARROCK: First is power. It's the power of the sound, the weight of it, the inventiveness of it. The other thing, I think, that's important is that no two people can play exactly the same time all the time, and there's just a shade of difference in the two drummers, and that's enough just to give the rhythm something very special, you know? 

ED FLYNN: Within the last year and a half, we've seen you release product in different contexts: We've seen the Sonny Sharrock Band with "Highlife"; "Ask the Ages," which was another project that you had put out at approximately the same time, featured an entirely different band -- Elvin Jones, Charnett Moffett, and Pharoah Sanders. Did that band ever perform live? 

SONNY SHARROCK: No, no. Pharoah sat in with us last year, two years ago, a year and a half ago, out in Oakland when we were there. And then Charnett, Pharoah and Pheeroan akLaff and myself: We did a concert in Frankfurt, Germany in the fall. And there's a gig coming up down in D.C. with the quintet, my current quintet, and Pharoah's gonna play with us down there. But to get that group together to do a tour or to do a performance is really difficult. Elvin is extremely busy, you know. And it's just that everybody's so busy, it's very hard to do, you know. 

ED FLYNN: From 1991's Ask the Ages, here's Sonny Sharrock with "Little Rock," featuring saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Elvin Jones. 


Around the same time, you released a CD full of duets with Nicky Skopelitis, which seems to be, a lot of press and reviews and critics about the album compared it or talked about it as being, an extension of your "Guitar," your solo album. 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah, I guess that's in the writer's ear, because it wasn't thought of like that. .... I came into the project after Nicky had already started, he was laying down tracks, and we had always talked, we're great friends and we had always talked about doing something together, and he asked me, he said, "Well, come on and do some of these tunes with me," and he would lay down the tracks, and then I would come into the studio whenever he got some studio time. We did the record, I think, over a year's time, you know, just whenever we had time to do it. And I would come in and improvise some heads and some solos, and that was essentially it, you know. 

ED FLYNN: ....Let's backtrack a little to that album, "Guitar." How did you prepare to do a solo guitar album as compared to recording a band? 

SONNY SHARROCK: When Bill Laswell threatened to beat me if I didn't. No, I didn't want to do that record, I don't like solo guitar records at all, and it was right when Enemy Records was formed, right after the first Last Exit tour. And on the way back to New York, Bill said, "Come on, man, do a solo album, see, because we don't have enough bread to do a full band. Let's do a solo album, and I think it would really work." And he talked me into it on the plane after a few drinks. ... So we got back, I think it was on a Monday, and the next Tuesday we went into the studio and did the whole record that day, you know, I wrote a lot of the music on the way down to the studio, and that's how it went, and it just happened to go together like that. I'm very proud of that record. I like it a lot. And I feel I was pretty lucky with it, because it was, you know, right out of the blue. 


ED FLYNN: From "Guitar," that was "Blind Willie," Sonny's tribute to blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson. Sonny originally recorded that piece back in 1969 for his debut LP as a leader, "Black Woman." Our interview continues. Speaking of Bill Laswell, he seems to be behind the board in the production area of many of your recordings, and he seems to... many times be indulging in extremes of music, things that are really outside the mainstream. How does his role as a producer affect the musician's playing or the format of the whole project? 

SONNY SHARROCK: I think it's Bill's concept not to affect the musicians, to just let people do what they do and he'll get it down on tape and make it a record. .... I know when we work together, it's just a good time, we just have a good time, we're good friends, and we have a good time...and somehow a record gets made. 

ED FLYNN: Part of your association with him also included the band Last Exit, which also featured Peter Brotzmann and Ronald Shannon Jackson, and I know we'd talked about this once before and I asked you, "When's Last Exit getting back together?" and your response was...you were really hesitant [laughs], I mean. 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah, I think that Last Exit was...truly a great improvisational band, and that's why I don't think it can happen again: because once a solo's done, it's done. And then it seemed to feel to me towards the end that we were repeating ourselves a lot and were looking for ways to get through the night. That's how it felt to me. So when we first started out, it was just full blow-out and it was great fun. And, you know, we had a good time all the time, whether onstage or in the bar, we had a good time, you know, and it was a crazy band, and I think that was it. It just happened, and that was it. And I don't know if it could ever happen again, you know. 

ED FLYNN: Last Exit was known for releasing live albums, and all of a sudden you guys collected in the studio for the Iron Path LP. What was the main difference, bringing that band into a studio? I mean, you guys had already put out four live albums; you've played strictly live; all of a sudden you're all coming into the studio at the same time. 

SONNY SHARROCK: That's what was different about it: We weren't there at the same time [laughs]. 

ED FLYNN: Really! 

SONNY SHARROCK: Everybody came down, came in and laid down tracks [laughs], and I didn't see anybody. And Laswell was producing, so I saw him, but that was it, that was it, and we weren't there at the same time....'cause Peter was in town for a little bit and then he had to leave, and Jackson I think was going out on the road so he'd laid down some tracks and split, and that's how we did it. 

ED FLYNN: Last Exit was also notorious for problems on the road and promoters, audiences -- 

SONNY SHARROCK: What? Get out. 

ED FLYNN: -- not getting it. 

SONNY SHARROCK: [Laughs] No, we used to empty some houses; we emptied a few; we emptied a few. It was a tough band to take, you know.... An agent booked us into Blues Alley in D.C., which is, like, comparable to the Blue Note here in New York, you know, one of those tuxedo joints, and people were trying to eat dinner, and we were crashing with that music. And, oh, man, we wore 'em out.

ED FLYNN: There's supposed to be a CD coming out, Last Exit live in Europe, '89. Is this going to be the last of the recordings that you think might surface?

SONNY SHARROCK: Oh, it couldn't be, and I'll tell you why: because we played so many dates in Europe, you know, we would go over and we would be playing gigs, we would go over and play like ten gigs in two weeks' times, and then we would come back home, and five weeks later we'd be back in Europe again for another ten weeks, so I'm sure there's tape from every gig we did. I'm absolutely sure of it. And there'll be Last Exit records, you know, forever, it seems. 

ED FLYNN: .... The presence of Peter Brotzmann: Do you see a difference in the way Europeans approach the free jazz and the improvisational genre as opposed to American musicians? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah. They study it, whereas we just felt it and did it. In Europe it seems to be more clinical; it's a study. I've had guys come up to me in Europe and tell me how they were inventing new horns to get a new sound, but they never said anything about getting some new feeling. You know, it was all very technical and very science-led, you know. This is a strange thing for me: I'm playing in America with my own band, and I've never done that before, I always played in Europe with groups, and it is so good to play here because this is American music that I make, I'm an American, I make American music, and my audience in America feels the music. In Europe they understand it but they don't really feel it as well. You know, I remember one night in Paris the audience sat there, and we were sweating, we were having a good time, and I looked out at the audience, and it killed me because they were intellectualizing the music. You know, everybody looked like Sartre sitting there smoking pipes and running the music through their minds but not their hearts, you know. And in America the audience is with this, and they feel what we're doing. It's American music. 

ED FLYNN: I want to backtrack to the early and the mid-'6O's when you were coming on the scene in New York. There was free jazz or improvised music, it was exploding on the scene with Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane's explorations. .... But doing "Tauhid" with Pharoah, you're entering the studio with a major leader and obviously one of your idols. What was your reaction to that? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Well, the whole night was very strange, 'cause we went into the studio, and I walk in, and it was out at Rudy Van Gelder's place out in Jersey, and this is where John Coltrane made those great Impulse! recordings, and I think John was very instrumental in getting Pharoah this date in the first place. .... And I said..."This is what I've always wanted." You know that picture on one of the albums where Coltrane is sitting on the steps in that studio? I sat there and tried to soak up some of that [laughs] for a while. But the date went on, and we did the date that night, did the whole thing. Incredible. It still is whirling around in my head. It is incredible, just incredible.

ED FLYNN: Another leader you worked with briefly, the late Miles Davis, "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" album: .... At the time Miles was getting into improvisation, extended pieces. How did he present his music to his side men? 

SONNY SHARROCK: He gave me a piece of torn music paper with this impossible-to-play figure, a sixteenth-note figure, just incredible music, torn-off corner of music, and he said [hoarse whisper], "Play this." That's how he did it [laughs], you know. And then I would mess up; he would say [hoarse whisper], "Naw, Sonny, not like that," you know... But I learned more playing with that cat that one day than I've ever learned in my life, man. He was an incredible teacher, just being around him. 

ED FLYNN: ....You spent a few years with Herbie Mann. Working with him as a leader, the overall sound of the flute was not as powerful and sometimes as lung-filled as a saxophone. How did you relate to working into that kind of context? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Right. Well, Herbie gave me other things. You know, there wasn't, like, a very powerful music, but it was a very open music in its way, Herbie was very open about his music, and he is probably the best bandleader there is in the business. He showed me a lot about leading a band. Herbie was an incredible cat. And night after night, he could just walk out onstage and always hit it, you know, always. 

ED FLYNN: What was the so-called free-jazz scene like here in New York in the mid-'60's when it was exploding? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Ah, man. This is the neighborhood that it exploded in, and when I was driving here tonight, I used to live on 3rd Street, 77 East 3rd, which is now, I think, the Hell's Angels headquarters in New York ... but in that building, I lived on the second floor, Byard Lancaster lived across the hall, Dave Burrell lived upstairs, Sun Ra lived across the street, Sirone the bass player lived across the street, Pharoah lived around the corner, so that was just one block. You know? [Laughs] I mean, it was music, and it was going on. One day I remember walking from my house on 3rd Street up to 8th Street to get the paper, 8th Street and 2nd Avenue, and as I turned onto 2nd Avenue I met Archie Shepp, we talked for about half an hour, and then I walked up the street to 8th Street and there was Albert Ayler, and then we talked some more. You know, but that's how it was. And then there was Slug's, of course, and all that was going on there every night, you know. 

ED FLYNN: Were there a lot of jam sessions, people showing up on the bandstand, and did you get involved in any of that? 

SONNY SHARROCK: No, very seldom that people sat in there, 'cause guys had a chance to work their grooves, you know. But the first night I worked with Pharoah, Don Cherry sat in. That was quite a treat, you know. But most of the time it was just the bands, the guys getting a chance to play their music there. So it was. But you could see it every night, man, and hang out, and the guys hear you, and you might get hired to do a gig with somebody. It was really a great scene. 

ED FLYNN: Let's talk about your recordings, your debut recordings as a leader, "Black Woman" and "Monkey-pockie-boo," which are now out of print, but collectors would kill for these recordings. How did you assimilate from being a side man to now leading your own gig in the studio? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Well, it always for me was always about being a leader. I never did like being a side man very much. I mean, I enjoyed myself with Pharoah a lot, and Miles, but the idea for me: I had an idea about music, and it was to get that out, and the only way to do that was to be a leader. And it was just I was with Herbie Mann at the time, and he started producing for Atlantic, and he said one night, "You need to make a record, so come on." And that's how we did "Black Woman."

ED FLYNN: What kind of ideas were you trying to present? I mean, after all, it's your name now that's carrying the sound. 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah. I was hearing, at that time, I was hearing these melodies that are, I guess, really rooted in folk melodies and in the pentatonic scale, and I just had to play these melodies, you know. And that was the whole thing, just to get this thing in me, get it out, you know, make it real, because it's in you and it's fine, but it isn't real yet... until you make it music. 

ED FLYNN: How were these recordings received by the general public, or at least the jazz record buyers? 

SONNY SHARROCK: .... They didn't sell very many copies at all, you know. The company said they did it as a favor for Herbie and they released it, but it didn't do very well at all. 

ED FLYNN: Throughout the '70's, you weren't as prolific as a record releaser as you are now, and also, I believe, you did take a break from music towards the late '70's. 

SONNY SHARROCK: That was a forced break, I didn't plan on doing that, it was just, you know, there was no work, I wasn't working, I wasn't recording, so I think the last album I did was the "Paradise" album for Atlantic, which should stay a collector's item, should never be re-released, and did that album, and then I didn't do any more records again for twelve years -- well, I did, no, I did one record, there's a French record, if the collectors are really crazy they can find this thing, it's horrible, but I did it with a trio in Paris, and it's called "Dance with Me, Montana," and it's a terrible record. But hey, it's there, and I gotta live with it, but maybe I did my worst record, and that's how I always felt about that record, you know, but that was the one record that I did in that, like, twelve-year space. 

ED FLYNN: .... I understand you briefly attended Berklee, which is a very disciplined type of-- 

SONNY SHARROCK: ...Yeah, at that time it was kind-a loose up there, you know, but it did give me my basics in theory, and that I'm very thankful for. .... I think there were twenty-six guitar players, and I was the twenty-fifth, I was that bad, you know, and then the guy who was twenty-sixth quit and started playing baritone saxophone, he didn't play guitar, so that made me the absolute worst guitarist in Berklee [laughs]. Yeah. But I met a lot of cats, I met Byard Lancaster there, I met Dave Burrell, Tony Williams was in the high school, he was fourteen years old, he used to come down there and wipe everybody out, so I knew Tony from then, you know. So you know, it was a great experience ....


ED FLYNN: ....Wynton Marsalis has been teaching and getting a message across about jazz tradition and jazz education. I was wondering how you relate to that...being a self-expressionist, many times breaking the rules or making up your own musical rules to get across a point. I was wondering, do you draw lines between, quote, what is "schooled" and what is, you know, of your own self? 

SONNY SHARROCK: I believe in knowing all you can about the music and the people who made the music. I think it's much more important to know some good Miles Davis stories than to know how to play like Miles. I think you'll play better if you know some of the funny things he did than if you know the licks that he played. To play somebody else's licks is stupid, yet a lot of guys spend all their life getting that together, and then when it comes down to play, that's all they can play. They can't play anything from themselves. And that's not good. That's not what jazz is. The one thing, I think, that these guys, these new young-old men, do, the one thing they forget, is that this is a creative art, and you're supposed to create; "create" means to make from nothing or to make from yourself, not to remake. And that's what they do a lot of, just "Look how good I can play this solo" from 1946 or from 1956. That's not what's happening. That's not the music, you know... When Miles was playing at the Cafe Bohemia, he was playing Miles Davis; he was not playing the trumpet player who went before him, you know. 

ED FLYNN: How did you come up with your own concept? You're noted for having a very unique voice on your instrument. 

SONNY SHARROCK: I bought it. I sent away for it [laughs]. There's, you know, the back of the matchbooks. No, no. Just because of my thoughts on the instrument, that I didn't like the instrument very much, I didn't like the sound of the guitar. 

ED FLYNN: ....How do you craft your sound equipment-wise? Let's talk about your basic set-up. 

SONNY SHARROCK: Oh, no, we're into equipment now, yeah. I used to just, up until last fall, just plug straight into my Marshall and just play, but it wasn't enough, I was never really satisfied with it, as strong as it was and as good as it was,it just wasn't giving me enough of the things I needed, so I came home last fall from that gig in Europe with Pharoah, and then I bought some equipment, I bought a rack, this rack system, and I'm still experimenting on it and working with it. But I am very happy with the way it's going. I'm using a processor that I punched in about ten effects just to build the sound and, you know, to make it sound like the thing I'm hearing in my head. And it's going quite well. 

ED FLYNN: Speaking specifically about the guitar, you're noted for using the Gibson Les Paul. On your earlier recordings you were using the hollow-bodied ES-175. Was that an easy transition for you? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah, when I finally did it. What happened: I had the Les Paul and I would take it out every now and then and play it, and I played it solo one night, and Larry Coryell said, he said, "Man, that's the guitar for you." And I said, "Thanks, Larry." That did it. And since then I've been playing Les Pauls. But I was at Gibson on Tuesday, and they're making me a guitar, I'm designing my own guitar, so they're gonna make that, a custom guitar for me. 

ED FLYNN: ....I want to talk briefly about the current scene regarding improvised music. Downtown New York is becoming more notable now for a lot of improvisation, a lot of experimentalism; venues like the Knitting Factory and the Kitchen are becoming very notable for being breeding grounds for this type of thing. 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah. I'd ask those people, "Don't forget the feeling. The music is about feeling." ....It's gotta be about inside, you've gotta go in, and you have to think like Coltrane, you know, and just say, "I'm gonna blow my heart out in this horn -- every night," and that's what music should be about. That's what it should always be about. .... Sometimes I see players that think, and you can tell they're thinking of the next phrase to play or the next thing to do, the next little cute trick, and that's sad, man, you know. That's not makin' music; that's puttin' together puzzles, you know. Music should flow from you and it should be a force; it should be feeling, all feeling, man. 

Sonny Sharrock, Knitting Factory, NYC, 1993
©Jeff Schlanger, ®Music Witness, email: jschlanger@earthlink.net

ED FLYNN: Do you have any contemporary musical inspirations, anything that's happening currently that, you know, gives you a little bit of a boost, some inspiration to do what you do? 

SONNY SHARROCK: Yeah, my band. I swear, man, no, I can feel like the world has just given up on me totally and play with these cats and it's all brand new. It's just like I just hit New York again. My band's the most inspiring thing I know in music. They're killin' me [laughs]. 

ED FLYNN: ....Is there anybody that's no longer with us who you regret that you didn't have a chance to play with? 

SONNY SHARROCK: ...Well, if I had been able to walk out onstage with the Coltrane quartet, I think I could have just laid down and died myself right then and there, but that was the band. That was the band. There are a couple other bands maybe I would like to have walked out with -- Miles with the sextet, with Coltrane and Cannon, and Bird with anybody [laughs], you know. I mean, those kinds of bands you can dream about; that's who I've spent a lot of time dreaming of [laughs]. Monk: I would love to have played with Monk. .... Yeah, any of those people, any of those people. They were just, whooo, you know; they made such incredible music. 

ED FLYNN: Looking back on your career, what would be the most outstanding memories that you've had in regards to your band? 

SONNY SHARROCK: .... Tonight. I'm serious. It's gonna happen, it happens every time, that they bring so much new stuff, and they always go after music with a feeling all the time, and every night it's like that. And whenever we get a chance to go on the road and we're out and we're playing continuously for a couple of weeks, just night after night, it just builds and builds till you can hardly stand it, you know. I used to see the Coltrane quartet, they would be like that, they would come out and would just play and play, and you'd say, "Oh, this has to stop. I can't take any more." And that's how it gets with this band, you know. So they're always killin' me, you know. I can't even think about the past with this band. It's always the future. 

ED FLYNN: What can we expect from Sonny Sharrock and the Sonny Sharrock Band in the future? 

SONNY SHARROCK: In the future we're gonna make some very good records; we're gonna make some music that's gonna really turn some things around, because the concept of the band is different than a lot of people's. In my new music I'm writing all of my experiences, from my doo-wop days to what my daughter plays for me now when she runs in and says, "Dad, listen to this, this is hot," you know, and she plays me some of her hip-hop things. And I'm using the whole spectrum, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, everything I've ever known is in there, you know, and that's what it is from them, taking all of my resources and using every one of 'em....