Sonny Sharrock never wanted to play guitar. He disliked the instrument when he first tried it out, as a 20-year-old in 1960, and he remained stubbornly committed to that attitude even after he’d radically expanded its expressive possibilities, remade it to suit his vision, established himself as one of the greatest ever to play it. Or so he claimed, to almost anyone who ever got him on the record, until just about the day he died. In 1970: “I hate the guitar, man.” In 1989: “I don’t like guitar, I don’t like it at all.” In 1991, two months after the release of his last and greatest album: “I don’t like it.” In 1992: “I despise the sound of the guitar.” In 1993, less than a year before his death: “I didn’t like the instrument very much.”
Sharrock had asthma as a teenager, which didn’t stop him from singing doo wop, or dabbling in any street-level mischief that was available to a ’50s kid in his hometown of Ossining, New York. But it did rule out the tenor saxophone he coveted after an encounter with Kind of Blue converted him to the church of John Coltrane. An acquaintance had a guitar on hand, so he picked that up instead. The decision, he would later be sure, had saved his life from “whatever young men die of in the street.” Still, he went on resenting the guitar, which he believed was not suited to the outbursts of ecstatic humanity he heard in Coltrane or the other tenor players he came to love, like free jazz pioneers Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, Coltrane associates who took their music even further toward an oblivion outside Western ideas about melody and rhythm. The guitar, to Sonny Sharrock, always sounded the same, no matter who was playing it. It had no feeling.
Just about every musician Sharrock admired had worked on bandstands, or at least begun seriously honing their craft, while they were still teenagers. As a young man, he felt he was arriving to jazz late in life, too late to learn the music by the usual methods: studying other players, absorbing their licks, eventually developing your own. So he decided to simply express himself as purely as he could within the bounds of his ability at the time, on an instrument he didn’t care for. Had he gone searching for guitar idols, he wouldn’t have found any, because no one before Sonny Sharrock played guitar like him.
Only Jimi Hendrix did as much as Sharrock, as early, to push the electric guitar to its limits and explore what sounds were there. Hendrix’s wildest music, like 1970’s “Machine Gun,” involved extreme volume and the ensuing feedback and distortion, spontaneous outer energy that he harnessed and redirected; if he put the guitar down in the middle of a solo, it might go on roaring without him. Sharrock, who liked to keep the volume on his amp at 4 out of 10, was more like a horn player, animating an object that would otherwise lie mute. Everything that came out—as his slide shot past the end of the fretboard, as his pick struck muted strings, as he strummed chords so quickly and ferociously that they began to resemble approaching tornadoes—came from kinetic effort. The energy was inside him.
Sharrock always considered himself a saxophonist who happened to play the wrong instrument. His closest kindred spirit may be Ayler, whose approach to the tenor was as uncompromising as Sharrock’s to the guitar. Both men favored melodies so bright and clear a child could have composed them, then turned them inside out. They might begin with a folk tune and end with music you couldn’t represent on a staff any more than you could notate shattering glass. The sound itself was the thing. A single instant of noise could be as expressive as an entire melody; there was hardly any difference between the two. They were Black visionaries who rejected the strictures of the white European thought that sought to govern all musical expression. But their music wasn’t only, or even primarily, about negation. It was about freedom, transcendence, a joyous embrace of whatever lay beyond.
Even in the revolutionary world of free jazz in mid-1960s New York City, where Sharrock moved not long after dropping out of Berklee College of Music, his music was a difficult proposition. Before he arrived, “jazz guitar” meant the elegantly melodic soloing of Wes Montgomery or Charlie Christian. Most free groups didn’t have a place for the instrument, which seemed stuck inside the buttoned-up tonality of an earlier era in jazz, and was fast becoming an emblem of the current day’s white pop music. On top of that, there was Sharrock’s fondness for sing-song simplicity, not otherwise particularly fashionable among the avant-garde.
No one quite knew what to do with this strange and singular talent. His first few years on the scene produced one masterwork under his own name—1969’s Black Woman, a collaboration with his then-wife, the equally radical vocalist Linda Sharrock—and a series of electrifying but brief appearances on records by other players. They tended to use him like a scene-stealing character actor, letting him dazzle the audience for a moment and then ushering him out of the frame. As a result, being a Sonny Sharrock fan can feel like being on a long scavenger hunt. Have you heard that crazy R&B album he plays on? Do you know about the uncredited cameo with Miles? It’s a lot of sitting through Herbie Mann records, waiting for him to cut the tasteful flute stuff for a minute and let Sonny rip.
And then there is Ask the Ages. In a catalog that is otherwise unruly and difficult to navigate, Sharrock’s final album is clearly the mountaintop. When it was released in 1991, he was 50 years old, five years into an unlikely creative resurgence after a decade in which he hardly worked at all. He was in the best form of his life, playing with impossible tenderness on one tune and unbearable force on the next. For the first time since Black Woman, he was leading an ensemble of peers and equals—players who could match his intensity, but also exerted a certain solemn gravity, befitting his status as a master, that his last few albums had missed: Pharoah Sanders, the fire-breathing saxophonist who had given Sharrock his first gigs back in the ’60s; Elvin Jones, the John Coltrane Quartet drummer whose torrential cymbal work was a key early influence on the guitarist’s guitar-averse approach; and Charnett Moffett, a virtuosic 24-year-old double bassist who understood when to carve space for himself among these elders and when to sit back.
Three years after Ask the Ages, Sharrock died of a heart attack. Viewed from one angle, the album looks divinely inspired: the culmination of Sharrock’s artistry, reuniting him with towering figures from his past and offering a chance to express the sound inside him once and for all, in a dignified final stand against the instrument he treated like a sparring partner—the instrument that saved his life—before he put it down and moved on to the next one.
From another angle, it looks kind of like a fluke. Sharrock and producer Bill Laswell conceived of the album, down to its title, in a single conversation at a bar in Berlin. They intended to make music that would put the guitarist in touch with his own history. “I want to reconnect with the music of John Coltrane,” Sharrock said, in Laswell’s recollection. “That energy, that possession, that power. I want to get back to that level, that quality again. Make something serious.” The guitarist’s primary focus in those years was the Sonny Sharrock Band, his touring group, a burly rock-oriented outfit with two hard-hitting drummers. Their music is as delirious and uplifting as a carnival ride. It does not sound very much like John Coltrane, nor would you necessarily reach for “serious” as an adjective to describe it.
Sharrock was obviously thrilled with Ask the Ages, but the players weren’t making long-term plans; he seemed to see the album as an enlightening diversion from his main gig. When an interviewer asked him about what would come next, he enthused about Sonny Sharrock Band records he planned to make, which would possibly be influenced by hip-hop. The last bit of music he released before dying was the soundtrack to Cartoon Network’s cult-classic talk show parody Space Ghost Coast to Coast, reflecting a deep playful streak that the imposing Ask the Ages doesn’t always convey on its own. (“I think a cat like Al Di Meola would play better if he smiled a little bit,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “The shit ain’t that serious.”) Sharrock’s death makes it easy to apprehend Ask the Ages as his magnum opus, but he might have resisted that idea himself. In life, he rarely traveled by such straight lines.
Laswell and Sharrock had been close collaborators ever since the producer helped the guitarist come back from an involuntary early retirement. Herbie Mann, a mainstream-friendly pop-jazz fusionist, had been Sharrock’s most reliable employer in the late 1960s and early ’70s, despite their considerable musical differences. After they parted ways, Sharrock made another album with Linda—1975’s surreal funk experiment *Paradise—*and his career soon hit the skids. He began supporting himself with gigs as a chauffeur and at a school for children with mental illness, spending years woodshedding and writing but rarely performing and never recording.
Things started to change when Laswell invited him to play on Memory Serves, a 1981 album by his art-punk-dance band Material. Laswell, who plays bass but is perhaps most important for the myriad connections he’s facilitated between experimental musicians across genres, began bringing Sharrock in on more projects after that. Chiefly, there was Last Exit, a band whose ruthlessly discordant music, improvised from scratch every night, favored pummeling punk rhythms over the swing that underpinned even the furthest-out free jazz, sounding more like what was coming to be known as noise rock.
After washing up on the shores of jazz, Sharrock was suddenly celebrated as a visionary progenitor to a new generation of adventurous rock musicians and listeners. Thurston Moore bought a pile of Herbie Mann records and isolated all Sharrock’s solos, dubbing them onto a single cassette. “It was one of the best things I had ever seen and heard,” he said of a Sonny Sharrock Band performance he attended at the Knitting Factory. “It was enlightening. It kind of informed me further, as far as what I wanted to do with the guitar.” The world of experimental electric guitar playing, where white artists often win the most acclaim today, would not exist as we know it without Sharrock.
Ask the Ages brings the intensity of Sharrock and Laswell’s previous collaborations into a format more easily recognizable as jazz. Sharrock, who composed the material himself, channeled his taste for simple and direct melodies into the opening tune of each piece. In these sections, he frequently overdubbed multiple interlocking guitar lines, which massed together with Sanders’ tenor into something liquidy and metallic, a mutant horn section. Most tracks, for the first minute or so, are swinging and approachable, maybe even a little old-fashioned. Then comes the fire.
On “As We Used to Sing,” a stately minor theme ascends to a breaking point, and Sharrock’s solo takes over: first furious and serpentine, then jaunty and staccato, then out somewhere past the horizon. (Despite his stated preference for plugging straight into his Marshall amplifier at moderate volume, it’s hard to believe he’s not getting some more juice from the amp or a pedal.) Even as he departs from the melody and begins summoning waves of pure sound, there is a distinct emotional trajectory. He valued feeling above all else in his playing, and professed disinterest in noise for its own sake. At the passage’s peak, rather than winding down, Sharrock abruptly stops, and the resulting negative space is as striking as the previous cacophony. When Sanders steps in and offers a series of birdlike calls on his horn, it’s like witnessing the first signs of new life after a disaster that wiped the earth clean.
Sharrock spoke in his later years of a sense that he was paring down any extraneous elements in his playing in an effort to get closer to the heart of a given melody. This effort is audible throughout Ask the Ages, and most clearly in “Who Does She Hope to Be?,” the shortest and sweetest tune. Jones and Sanders recede to the margins, hardly playing anything at all. Sharrock’s phrases are spacious and melancholy. He isn’t doing anything fancy, just letting the melody speak. Your attention moves to Moffett, whose fluid self-possession on the bass turns the arrangement on its head. For an album so concerned with legacy, Ask the Ages never gives the sense that this music is anything other than a living thing. “Who Does She Hope to Be?” underscores this attitude powerfully: The young sideman, for a moment, has become the leader.
The album reaches its astonishing apex with “Many Mansions,” the track that most recalls Sharrock’s sojourns in avant-rock. Its pentatonic theme has the elemental quality of A Love Supreme’s “Acknowledgement” section, but as it repeats across nine minutes, it also begins to resemble a Black Sabbath riff. Sanders takes the lead before Sharrock, with a solo that reaches a climax before it even gets going, beginning with an ecstatic fit and growing only more frenzied from there. With the cry of a single sustained note, or a babbling trill between two, he conveys lifetimes. Elvin Jones, in his mid-60s, seems even more potent than he was as a young man, urging the soloists to ever-greater heights. Thanks in part to advances in recording fidelity over the previous several decades, his kit has become a visceral entity, almost multisensory; each bass drum hit is a wallop to the chest, the shimmer of ride cymbals is nearly visible in front of you. According to Sharrock, there is an audible mistake in his guitar solo, a flicker of lost composure brought on by Jones’ rhythmic onslaught. “I flashed back to Birdland when I used to see him with Coltrane,” he said. “And I lost it. For a second you can hear this bump, because I was gone.” Good luck finding it.
Articulating the beauty of Ask the Ages is difficult, because it seeks something that can’t be described. Sharrock was unsparing in his dismissals of music that sidelined feeling—indulging in artifice and imitation, or betraying a desire to impress the listener—including his own less satisfying efforts. “That’s not making music; that’s putting together puzzles,” he told an interviewer about a year before his death. “Music should flow from you, and it should be a force. It should be feeling, all feeling.”
“The whole thing,” he said in the same interview, was “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.” Near the end of his life, Sharrock seemed to feel that he was closer than ever to finding that thing. He continued to profess hatred for the instrument he was stuck with, but the love in his late music is unmistakable. Like his hero John Coltrane, he died in the middle of a visionary period, leaving behind work that suggests further revelations to come. “I don’t even think about age,” he told another interviewer. “I’m just so happy to be playing good that I don’t care…I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve just discovered myself, you know? It’s just now started to happen for me musically. I now am able to play the things that I hear.”
Sharrock once said that he was only religious insofar as he believed that Coltrane is God. Still, his quest for truth of expression in his playing was not unlike Coltrane’s more explicitly spiritual yearning. Coltrane wanted a higher power; Sharrock just wanted feeling. Listening to him and the band speaking in tongues across Ask the Ages, you might wonder whether those are two names for the same thing.
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