Sonny Sharrock – Ask The Ages (1991, 2015 reissue)

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It’s a favorite parlor game among music enthusiasts to debate about who are the world’s greatest guitarists. While anyone’s list is simply a reflection of that person’s subjective taste, I still wonder how many unquestionably highly talented guitar players don’t receive proper recognition because their style was too far outside the fences of what we expect guitar players to sound like, and often before people began to understand these mavericks, they’re gone.

Sonny Sharrock, perhaps more so than any other unsung axe hero, falls into that unfortunate category. A virtuoso given to unleashing freakish outbursts on guitar, his volcanic activity on “Yesternow” made for a stimulating experimental moment within Miles Davis’ rock-jazz groove classic Tribute To Jack Johnson, something that arguably should have put him squarely in the vanguard of pioneering electric guitarists during the Age of Hendrix. But alas, that cameo was never credited and led to him turning down a chance to be in Davis’ band at a time when Miles was playing in large rock venues. Fast forward twenty-four years later, and Sharrock had just completed recording a soundtrack to a quickly forgotten animated series when a heart attack cut his life short at the age of fifty-three.

Fortunately, Sharrock left behind a fair amount of fine records that he had made over a period stretching from the late 60s up to the early 90s, and for his last proper album he fully opened up the spigot of his potential as not merely a guitarist but as a complete artist: a composer and leader as well as a musician. It’s nothing short of his masterpiece.

Ask The Ages — reissued in enhanced and remastered form on November 13, 2015 on original co-producer Bill Laswell’s M.O.D. Technologies label — comes at the end of a spurt of recording activity for Sharrock that started in 1986 with his chops-heavy album Guitar (1986). Unlike Guitar, Ages, originally released in 1991, sought to put Sharrock back in touch with his out-jazz beginnings but without forsaking his rock stylings.

His choice of personnel signaled the jazz intent at the core of the recordings. Pharoah Sanders (sax), Elvin Jones (drums) and Charnett Moffett (upright bass), combined two key members of John Coltrane’s most adventurous period with a veteran of Ornette Coleman’s Primetime band. Sanders’ participation in this project, in fact, brings Sharrock full circle in his career; his first ever recording credit is on Sanders’ 1966 disk Tauhid.

With modal masters at his disposal, Sharrock wastes no time offering his own concept of Coltrane’s probes into jazz’s outer limits. “Promises Kept” maintains a swing but Sharrock’s overdubbed guitars have an oddly glistening quality to them in the head section. He hands off the first lead to his old mentor Sanders who is in fine fury form, and then the guitarist himself joins in right at the top of Sanders’ arc. It’s here where out-jazz and metal blissfully intersect, and even as Sharrock assumes full control, Sanders can’t help but to get a few more licks in even as he fades to the background.

More swing is served up with unmatched command by Jones and Moffett, who form the bedrock for “Little Rock,” but Sharrock demonstrates he can not only deliver a defiantly rock reading of swing with a stinging tone but also make it sound entirely logical. He gets much more caustic on “As We Used To Sing” with original, audacious phrasing and then Sanders surprises with a pretty counterpoint that borders on rhapsodic and yet also adventurous.

In another nod to the genius of ‘Trane, “Many Mansions” sounds like “Equinox”‘s evil twin brother and in front of Jones’ signature polyrhythms, Sanders gives it an appropriately impassioned lead. It’s a nearly impossible act to follow, but Sharrock manages to surpass it once he reaches his top gear. “Once Upon A Time” cedes the floor to Jones’ imposing toms, and the rest of the players regulate themselves to a repeating figure in deference to the late drumming giant. Moffett’s sublimely human feel that he invests into his bass ruminations highlight the album’s lone ballad “Who Does She Hope To Be?”

Sonny Sharrock’s greatest artistic achievement is nearly a quarter century old but has lost none of its immediacy and freshness. Probably because no one has quite caught up to him yet. With enhanced audio quality, Bill Laswell is motioning for a needed revisit of Ask The Ages and the man behind it.


Promises Kept:

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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