Promises Kept

By Jason Chervokas
July, 1994

It's 1967 and you've just dropped the needle on the grooves of the song "Aum" from Tauhid, the latest faux-Eastern jazz LP from tenor man Pharoah Sanders. Suddenly the speakers are alive with a crackling, hair-raising noise like the sound of an electrical fire, a shivering, itchy sound that swoops, needles, and trembles. 

You don't know what the hell the sound is, but you know you've never heard anything like it before. Unfortunately, you'll never hear anything like it again. That's because the sound is the astonishing guitar playing of the late Sonny Sharrock, a man who created his own aesthetic, his own way of deciding which sounds were right. 

Sonny Sharrock died on May 26 after suffering a heart attack at his home in Ossining, New York, the town where he was born 53 years earlier, August 27, 194O. Though he ended life as an icon of the free-jazz movement and a sort of father figure for the downtown "black rock" scene, Warren Sharrock, Jr. began his musical career singing gospel hymns in the choir at the Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church. He claimed not to be a religious man, but the yearning, keening qualities of the hymns of Dr. Isaac Watts and the often mournful beauty of Thomas Dorsey's gospel blues stayed with Sharrock until the end. Strip his 1969 song "Black Woman" down to its essence and you'll find plenty of Dorsey's "Precious Lord." And Sharrock's 199O rendition of the folk song "All My Trials" remains one of his most memorable performances. In fact, the most misunderstood aspect of the free-jazz movement, of which Sharrock was most certainly a part, is its strong reliance on melody, from the unforgettable pathos of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" to the buoyant spirit of Albert Ayler's "Ghosts." 

Sharrock almost seemed to revel in heroic, consonant themes. He admired the Shaker lucidity of Aaron Copland's orchestral music, and he wrote his own simple gems, from the childlike purity of his 1987 number "My Song" to the hard-boppish "Little Rock" on his 1991 masterpiece Ask the Ages. But, like Albert Ayler, Sharrock used these melodies as jumping-off points to get to something deeper. At his best, Sharrock would dig and claw at these themes until he got underneath their surfaces, driving the tunes, himself, and whatever band he was leading past the singsong and into the realm of pure sound, rhythm, and emotion. 

Picking quickly on a single note with Fender medium plectrums that he regularly chewed on, Sharrock could sometimes sound like a warped mandolin player at some hellish Italian restaurant. But other times he sounded like a summer thunder shower rolling in from the East, rumbling off in the distance, before suddenly cracking loose and ripping the sky with sizzling bolts of electricity. He used a slide to get those feral, ionized lightning sounds that seemed to rocket out of nowhere and soar from the bottom of the guitar into some plinky register well beyond the instrument's natural range. 

Although Sharrock could play withering, corrosive heavy metal or comp chords behind a mainstream cat like flautist Herbie Mann, this was Sharrock's gift: his rush to get beyond the limitations of his axe, his ability to use his conservatory training not as an anchor to conventional thinking, but as a tool for discovering new techniques. 

"I'm a tenor player," Sharrock told any interviewer who asked about his style. "I never liked the guitar." But childhood asthma kept him from taking up the saxophone. He came to jazz relatively late in life, at 19, when he heard Miles Davis' Kind of Blue on the radio. But once he embraced the music, he became one of its great evangelists, never failing to praise the masters and using interviews to stress the importance of improvisation. 

After hanging around New York in the mid-196Os, Sharrock adopted the techniques of the avant-garde tenor players to guitar. The split tones, wild interval leaps, rushing flurries of notes, washing gushes of pure sound: These were the currency of tenor greats like Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, and Sharrock's idol, John Coltrane. Similarly woolly sounds became Sharrock's stock in trade. 

It was that noisy, fiery wildness that endeared Sharrock to rock-music fans, but the guitarist never liked rock much and considered himself a jazz player exclusively. But that didn't stop him from writing "Dick Dogs," a monster rocker more akin to the music of Jeff Beck than that of Charlie Parker, and he even recorded "Kate," an improvisation based on "Wuthering Heights," Kate Bush's gothic art-rock ballad. 

Sharrock came to the eye of the jazz public in 1966 when he joined Sanders' band, with which he cut two albums, Tauhid and Izipho Zam. During the late 196Os and early 197Os, Sharrock toured and recorded extensively with pop-jazz flautist Herbie Mann. He appeared on two classics of the fusion era, Wayne Shorter's Super Nova and Miles Davis' A Tribute to Jack Johnson. He also recorded three albums as a leader, Black Woman, Monkey-pockie-boo, and Paradise. Black Woman in particular features some strong music, including the original version of a wonderful country blues, "Blind Willie," that Sharrock would record twice more. 

In the mid-197Os Sharrock disappeared. He spent the latter half of the decade working as a chauffeur and with mentally retarded children before re-emerging under the aegis of producer Bill Laswell in the early 198Os. In 1986 Laswell produced Sharrock's comeback solo guitar effort, Guitar, and the two joined with veteran avant-garde drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and European tenor man Peter Brotzmann in forming Last Exit, a remarkable free-form jazz-rock collective that made corrosive, frighteningly loud music of the highest order, particularly on the group's superb 1986 recording The Noise of Trouble. During the late 198Os, Sharrock played frequently with a number of downtown musicians and also reeled off a string of albums with the Sonny Sharrock Band, including 1987's excellent Seize the Rainbow

But all of this music, it turns out, was just a prelude to Sharrock's masterpiece, which came in 1991 when the guitarist reunited with Sanders and took a quartet into the studio featuring the tenor man plus bass player Charnett Moffett and former Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones. Ask the Ages is the kind of album an artist makes once in a lifetime. It throbs and swells with gorgeous melodies, swings where it has to, and bristles and slices when Sharrock and Sanders cut loose. It's the work of a mature artist at the top of his game. 

Sharrock left one final memorial, a short session cut last November for the Cartoon Network's wacky, half-live, half-animated talk show hosted by Hanna-Barbera character Space Ghost. Over a minimal keyboard track, Sharrock and drummer Lance Carter recorded a theme song for the show, then launched into a string of improvisations full of ingenuity and fervor. It's undiluted Sharrock, reminiscent in its concentrated impact of John Coltrane's last recordings, his duets with drummer Rashied Ali. This was Sharrock at his finest, leaping, full of faith, into a void of previously unknown sounds, using techniques of his own devising to fashion a stunningly personal, intensely powerful improvised music. The performance, like the rest of Sharrock's best playing, is sui generis, of its own kind. 

Sonny Sharrock was a visionary who wanted to split the sky the way John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Albert Ayler had. He was a man who, in his own words, wanted to capture the terror and the beauty of life in the same song, a musician at the top of his game, with a freshly inked major-label contract in his pocket -- which is why his death is a particularly grievous loss.