Ask The Ages: Revisiting Sonny Sharrock’s Masterful Swan Song

sonnybw4

The name alone is epic: Sonny Sharrock.

I won’t resist the urge, because I can’t, to pick a low-hanging pun and opine that Sonny put the rock back in jazz.

Still blazing down the trail Miles helped forge with the genre-obliterating Jack Johnson sessions (which Sharrock made an appearance at), Sonny seamlessly wove angular, concrete-hard riffs into compositions that were just on this side of free jazz. He was recognized as a genius fairly early on, which naturally meant he had no chance to make a decent living as a musician.

He dropped out of the scene for many years and came back (and/or was goaded back by the indefatigable Bill Laswell, not only one of the all-time heroes of postmodern jazz, but a man who has helped create, collaborate on and produce more albums than some people will ever listen to), invigorated and en fuego. He made, arguably, his best music at the end. Just as he was on the precipice of way-overdue major label acclaim he was felled by a heart attack. He remains not only a guitarist’s guitarist, but a jazz guitarist’s guitarist, which naturally means not nearly enough folks know about him.

ATA

In late 2015 we finally got an appropriately remastered reissue of his masterpiece, and swan song, Ask The Ages.

It’s well worth reaquiring for anyone who has earlier, inferior pressings, and obligatory –as in, drop everything, take my word for it, and just go buy this– for the uninitiated. Get initiated, and then take a deeper dive into Sharrock’s oeuvre.

Consider this a primer.

Anyone with ears can understand the beauty there. But Sonny was also a beast, and he brought the pain with an intensity that has not been rivaled by many names outside of Greek mythology.

Exhibit A: From the same album, this one really showcases the incomparable Elvin Jones and Sharrock’s closest aesthetic compatriot, Pharoah Sanders. It’s okay to be afraid; that is what happens just before you break through to the bright lights.

Whenever a remarkable artist is taken from us entirely too soon, there’s all the more reason to savor (and yes, celebrate) whatever scraps they left behind, making sure we appreciate all there is to get. And for the major works they gifted the world? These are to be treasured, studied, absorbed, and imitated. Yeah right, imitated? Well, no one can duplicate the kind of majesty on display here, but when I say imitate, I mean incorporate this type of honesty and passion, realize what things you were put on this earth to accomplish, and use a man like Sharrock as a motivating force for good. It’s the least any of us can do, considering what he’s already done for us.

There is music we rightly esteem, and keep close to our hearts. There is music, whatever its original intent, that can inspire or console us, or make us a bit more grateful to have been born. And then there is the rarest work, the stuff we can only call other. It is, as is always the case with geniuses stolen years or even decades before it made any sense, bewildering and confounding to contemplate what else might have been in store (for them, for us). But there is a surreal sort of symmetry when a singular artist’s final statement becomes instantly elegiac and immortal. Ask The Ages is a definitive document of Sharrock’s imagination; it’s also a living document of what humankind, at its best, is capable of achieving.

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The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Revisited)

Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and (insert other sites here) are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

C-peter-gabriel-2

Marvin Gaye!

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

Category Two: Jazz!

keithtippett711ft5

Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

Category Three: Personal Favorites

Standing_on_the_verge_of_getting_it_on

And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

planet-of-the-apes

And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead meets Hitchcock:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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Beauty and The Beast, Featuring Sonny Sharrock

The name alone is epic: Sonny Sharrock.

I won’t resist the urge, because I can’t, to pick a low-hanging pun and opine that Sonny put the rock back in jazz.

Still blazing down the trail Miles helped forge with the genre-obliterating Jack Johnson sessions (which Sharrock made an appearance at), Sonny seamlessly wove angular, concrete-hard riffs into compositions that were just on this side of free jazz. He was recognized as a genius fairly early on, which naturally meant he had no chance to make a decent living as a musician. He dropped out of the scene for many years and came back (and/or was goaded back by the indefatigable Bill Laswell, not only one of the all-time heroes of postmodern jazz, but a man who has helped create, collaborate on and produce more albums than some people will ever listen to), invigorated and en fuego. He made, arguably, his best music at the end. Just as he was on the precipice of way-overdue major label acclaim he was felled by a heart attack. He remains not only a guitarist’s guitarist, but a jazz guitarist’s guitarist, which naturally means not nearly enough folks know about him.

Consider this a primer.

If you take my advice just once this month, pick yourself up a copy of his masterpiece Ask The Ages. You can download this for less than six bucks @ Amazon. Less than one dollar a song, folks.

Check it:

Anyone with ears can understand the beauty there. But Sonny was also a beast, and he brought the pain with an intensity that has not been rivaled by many names outside of Greek mythology.

Exhibit A: From the same album, this one really showcases the incomparable Elvin Jones and Sharrock’s closest aesthetic compatriot, Pharoah Sanders. It’s okay to be afraid; that is what happens just before you break through to the bright lights.

If you’re looking for truth in advertising, sometimes a song title really can tell you what it’s all about. And then there’s…”The Past Adventures of Zydeco Honeycup”? (I know).

And in case there were any lingering questions.

Remember what I said about the bright lights?

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Four From Pharoah

I’ve spent an intense chunk of time this past week revisiting two obscure (but recently reissued!) albums from one of my top-tier jazz heroes, the still very much alive Pharoah Sanders. His best known –and best– work comes from the late ’60s and early ’70s when he went on a run that has been rivaled by few artists in the idiom. More on him (and the two albums I reviewed) shortly. For now, it makes me happy to reflect on the long and remarkably productive career of this living legend. This is music that requires a somewhat-opened, evolving mind, but it more than meets you half-way and opens up vistas and reflections you could never have conceived of on your own. That, of course, is the magic of creation: it is a shared experience.

Astral Traveling:

The Creator Has A Master Plan:

Ocean Song:

Kazuko:

Bonus track, courtesy of this EPIC WIN from YouTube. Live version of the great side-long suite “Let Us Go Into The House of The Lord” (from his highly-recommended album Summun Bukmun Umyun):

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

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The Wisdom of Crowds: A Celebration of Humanity via YouTube (Part One: Music)

 

FarSideCownCar 

Everyone knows YouTube is the best shortcut to favorite, as well as forgotten video clips. And while it is well worth recognizing, and celebrating, the millions of anonymous DJs out there manning the Internets have been doing work bringing the noise. Literally. YouTube is becoming (or has become) a reliable source for tunes. Everyone knows this, but there is no accounting for what gems you might stumble upon while surfing for that favorite (or forgotten) song. Of course, that is what Last.fm, Rhapsody and LimeWire are for. YouTube is less for programmed setlists and more for dedicated investigatory treasure hunts. Like the universe itself, the site is buzzing with signs of life and ready-to-be revealed secrets. If you boldly go where some men (and women) have gone before, you can collide with some very happy accidents.

Category One: Live Gems

C-peter-gabriel-2 

Marvin Gaye!

  

Emerson Lake and Palmer (prog-rock nirvana!):

 

Oh, you want more prog rock? How about some Genesis? You may recognize that reverse-mohawked lead singer…

 

The Moody Blues keeping it REAL:

Pink Floyd (not live, but there is plenty of that to be had; here is a rare promotional video, i.e., Prog rock apotheosis!):

John Fahey!!

 

Category Two: Jazz!

keithtippett711ft5 

Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra: “Fables of Faubus”
(First of all, that these songs are available is awesome; that this is a high school band (!) of Japanese girls (!!) playing –among other things– Mingus tunes (!!!) is bordering on miraculous. God bless them and God bless the Internets.)

Version One:

Version Two:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins:

Art Motherfucking Blakey:

 

William Parker!

(Special appreciation for the things you were looking for all of your life — but didn’t know it until you found them):

Sun Ra:

The Keith Tippett Group. Who? Exactly. (King Crimson fans will recognize this woefully underappreciated pianist):

Grachan Moncur III:

Pharoah Sanders:

 

Category Three: Personal Favorites

Standing_on_the_verge_of_getting_it_on

And then there are the old friends you sometimes need to dial up just to get through another case of the Mondays:

(I mean, a little Funkadelic never hurt anyone; in fact, it did a lot of people a whole lot of good. And hopefully a few of you have never heard of Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and are now addicted. I know what you’re thinking: Wow, what an incredible album title! Here’s the best part, that’s not even the second best Funkadelic album title from the first half of the ’70s. How about Cosmic Slop? Or the truly hysterical (or hysterically true) America Eats Its Young? Of course there is also Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow. And, for anyone still not convinced, we can cut through the cleverness and get to the heart of the matter with Maggot Brain. Yeah, you may be thinking, but how serious can a band be with album titles like that? The answer, incidentally, is: serious as a fucking heart attack.

Two words: Eddie Hazel:

Category Four: The Wisdom of Crowds

planet-of-the-apes

And finally, there are the geniuses amongst us who take the time not only to upload great music, but create arresting –and original– images to accompany it:

Exhibit A, Portishead:

Exhibit B, OutKast meets The Peanuts:

Exhibit C, Jimi Hendrix meets Earl King!!!

Exhibit D, Klaus Kinski, remixed:

And finally, Karlheinz Stockhausen — the only possible way to conclude this particular list:

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Upfull Living Or, A Tale of Two Album Covers

Part One: Pharoah Sanders

thembi

Maybe you have to be a Jazz aficionado to get excited by an album cover, but come on: How can you not love this? How can an album that looks like this not be brilliant? And here’s the thing: Yes, it was the ’70s (1971 to be exact) and yes, plenty of musicians (and artists) outside of the Jazz idiom were fully, if superficially, embracing Eastern (in general) and African (in particular, particularly within Jazz) culture. Then, and now, whenever an opportunistic interloper tries to straddle the line between the exotic and the trendy, it’s simple to see through the charade and the results are accordingly painful–for all involved.

Suffice it to say, in Pharoah Sanders’ case, this eastward glance was neither cursory nor commercially-minded. Continuing along the path his mentor John Coltrane strode in the previous decade, Sanders focused less on the shrieking and more on the cerebral. Although there are some obligatory saxophonic fireworks on Thembi, there are also some extraordinarily peaceful and meditative moments. Arguably, he reached an ideal balance on this effort, which some hail as his masterpiece and others decry as an uneven mess. But even the haters have to recognize that the title track, the ethereal “Astral Travelling” (below) and the astonishing Cecil McBee bass solo “Love” are some of the better recorded moments of the ’70s.

Part Two: Augustus Pablo

east_of_the_river_nile_big

Art imitating art (or, to be more precise, album cover imitating album cover)? Perhaps. But just as Thembi is arguably better but less known than Sanders’ enduring classic Karma (which, of course, featured Leon Thomas singing and yodeling and is either hopelessly aged or ageless, depending on one’s tolerance for that peace and love late-’60s vibe; the music, on the other hand, is unassailable), the late, great Augustus Pablo (Horace Swaby) is best known for the masterful King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. But as hardcore reggae enthusiasts are well aware, his shining hour may well be East of the River Nile. Like Thembi (and, again, like a great deal of Jazz and reggae from this era) the fascination with African roots is front and center. One reason these albums remain convincing, aside from the obvious genius of the assembled musicians, is the lack of words: the invocation of other places is purely sonic, and is able to impart an authenticity based on acumen and not affectation. You can hear it, as well as feel it. It’s never forced and it’s utterly honest. This is music that these men had to make, and that is how the best art is always created.

Aside from the obvious (and, to me, delightful) similarities of the two album covers, these albums seem to accrue additional layers of meaning and applicability during the summer months. Perhaps that is because I always associate them with the great summer of 2000, when I finally acquired CD versions of both after having made due with crappy cassette copies for entirely too long. To be certain, this is 365-day-a-year music, but if you are going to discover either of these albums for the first time, now is an ideal time to experience some upfull living, summer-style.

Upfull Living

Nature Dub

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(Not) Sucking in the ’70s: Jazz, Volume One

   

Yes, sometimes you can judge an album by its cover. Especially if it Jazz. Most especially if it was from the ’70s (that Sun Ra cover is from the ’60s, but nevertheless…)

A lot of people don’t understand, or appreciate Jazz.

A lot of people don’t understand, or appreciate, the ’70s…

We cannot help these people.

                  

Pharoah Sanders:

Lonnie Liston Smith:

Pat Martino:

Sun Ra:

Miles Davis:

Herbie Hancock:

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