Sonny Sharrock: Learn more about the guitarist seen in “Summer of Soul”

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The new from Questlove Summer of the soul doc is a mine of incredible footage, with extensive clips from Sly and the Family Stone, Mavis Staples, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and other icons at the peak of their performances. But one of the film’s most stand-out sequences highlights a lesser-known figure who co-starred with these legends at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival: guitarist Sonny Sharrock, seen twitching and wincing on stage as he wrings a rough expressionist racket with its hollow ax. during an appearance with flautist Herbie Mann.

“With black musical expression, there’s a certain kind of liberation and catharsis,” critic and musician Greg Tate says in the film, contextualizing the clip for Sharrock. “There is also rabies; there is also trauma. This notion of spiritual possession of Africa is reflected in this horrible American experience. Artists connect with pain. It’s like, ‘Yeah… I want you to feel who Sonny Sharrock really is right now.’ “

Watching the movie makes you feel who Sonny Sharrock really was, in the most visceral way, but after watching this brief episode you might be curious about more. He can be a difficult character to master, in part because a glimpse of the guitarist – who died of a heart attack in 1994, aged 53 – tended to give you only a sketchy idea of ​​who he was. artistic. On the one hand, Sharrock was a decidedly perverted player, whose fierce attack and right-hand trills (“the circular saw, the tear”, he once called it) and cacophony explosions were his way of life. ‘imitate the pioneers of the free-jazz saxophone. such as John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler who were his greatest musical heroes. (In a 1989 interview with Ben Ratliff, Sharrock explained that he first chose the guitar over the tenor saxophone only because he suffered from asthma. “I’m a tenor player, man. still considered that way, “Sharrock added.” I don’t like the guitar, I don’t like it at all, and I’ve always been influenced by horn players. “)

But just like Ayler, Coltrane and Sanders – with whom Sharrock made his recorded debut, in the 1967s Tauhid – the guitarist was also deeply fascinated by the moving melodies. He grew up singing doo-wop and his debut album as a frontman, the 1970s Black woman, which featured his then-wife Linda, in alternately soothing and screaming vocals, had its share of folkloric and hummable themes. The producer of this album was Mann, the jazz-r & b flutist whose otherwise amiable-sounding group, Sharrock, served as a welcome ointment for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s; When asked about his fondness for Sharrock, Mann once said, “A lot of people say they can’t understand how Sonny Sharrock can be in my band. The only reason they say this is because maybe they think that when you are a conductor you expect all of your kids to be brought up in your exact image. Which just shows that people and critics don’t know anything about individuals.

During this same period, Sharrock also recorded with Roy Ayers and Wayne Shorter, and made an uncredited appearance on the first Milestone of the Miles Davis merger. Jack Johnson. And from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s – when he often performed with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson in the brilliantly boorish noise-jazz supergroup Last Exit – he riffed on tunes originals like gems on his revelation. multi-track solo album Guitar and flirt with brilliant pop on the charming Sonny Sharrock Band release Highlife.

The stunning clip below, a full live set recorded in Prague in 1990, features a double drum quintet similar to that heard on Highlife, but with the great Melvin Gibbs, later of the Rollins Band and Harriet Tubman, on bass. On songs like “My Song” from 1987 Grab the rainbow, and a medley of “Venus” / “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt”, two works by Sanders on which Sharrock had performed Tauhid, you can hear Sharrock savoring the contrast between the bright, hopeful compositions and the stormy turbulence of his scroll saw solos.

In a 1991 New York Times interview, Sharrock reflected on his omnivorous sonic appetite.

“Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to find a way for terror and beauty to come together in one song,” he said. “I know it’s possible. I remember seeing John Coltrane standing, his saxophone screaming, hearing the Flamingos sing at the Apollo. All this pretty music! I hope to be as greedy as these musicians were. I want softness and brutality, and I want to go through with each of these feelings.

Sharrock would exploit it all – the terror and the beauty, the sweetness and the brutality – on the last album he released before his death, co-produced by Laswell Ask the ages, a powerful quartet session with his old friend Pharoah Sanders, former Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Charnett Moffett. It’s a beautifully varied ensemble that ventures from the white-hot heavy-metal bebop of opener “Promises Kept” to the almost unbearably poignant ball “Who Does She Hope to Be?” cover of a theme that Sharrock first played with saxophonist Byard Lancaster in the 1968s It’s not up to us), and the breathtaking melody of “Once Upon a Time”. As Andy Cush put it in a deep and insightful sense Fork Sunday exam of Ask the ages released last April, the album found Sharrock “in the best shape of his life, playing with impossible tenderness on one track and unbearable strength on the next”.

Considering Sharrock’s lineup, it’s no surprise that he inspired musicians across the musical spectrum. He has fans in the exploratory contemporary artists of the free-spirited guitarist Ryley walker to the ecstatic Sunwatchers punk jazzers; Vernon Reid of Living Color, who called him a standard [influencer] alternative & outsider guitar ”; Thurston Moore, who paid tribute to Sharrock after the guitarist’s death in quirky cartoon talk show episode Space Ghost from coast to coast (which featured a blues-rock theme song from Sharrock’s Outer Limits); and Carlos Santana, who covered Sharrock live and was due to work with him before Sharrock died. Talk to Premier Guitar in 2016, Santana summed up Sharrock’s success – how, as Greg Tate noted, he made us feel the totality of who he was in every cathartic explosion – and, just as importantly, the liberating effect that it might have on those who testified.

“Sonny – I would call him a liberator,” Santana said. “If you really listen, artists like this can free you from your own fear. He’s like Coltrane, he’s the cosmic lion. And when he roars, he wakes people up from the nightmare of feeling limited and unworthy.



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