Sonny Sharrock died of a heart attack in 1994, leaving behind nothing but a kick-butt legacy that quickly flew under too many radars. An asthmatic condition sidelined young Sharrock’s desire to be a saxophone player. Had he managed to overcome the asthma, he might have gone on to be just another pretty good jazz sax player. Instead, he took up the guitar and played it as if he were still thinking of the saxophone. He struck a remarkable balance between noisy racket and melodious single-line playing that set him far apart from many a jazz guitarist. Wes Montgomery he was not, but the path his career took seemed to suggest that he never intended to get around to sounding like your average bop guitarist. After providing his considerably unique axe skills for jazz heavyweights like Herbie Mann, Wayne Shorter, Don Cherry, and Miles Davis (Sharrock is inexplicably not credited for his playing on A Tribute to Jack Johnson), Sharrock made a string of albums with his then-wife Linda Sharrock. Paired together, her histrionic voice and his sax-minded guitar made for some rather difficult listening. Fans and critics struggle to give their sophomore collaboration Monkey-Pockie-Boo a pass while Sharrock himself downright hated their third and final album Paradise.
Sonny and Linda eventually divorced and the guitarist quietly bowed out from the music scene. Bill Laswell, the ever -prolific producer and bassist who fell under Sharrock’s spell after hearing him at the tender age of fourteen, coaxed him out of retirement to collaborate with him on the Material album Memory Serves, form a hardcore improvisational group with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Peter Brötzmann called Last Exit, and kick Sharrock’s solo career back into action with a slew of albums released in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The last one recorded while he was alive, Ask the Ages, has gone down in history as a classic in modern jazz circles.
Produced by Laswell and released on his own Axiom label, the CD edition of Ask the Ages faded from the market much quicker than most music minted in that era. My brother’s friend once drove from one side of Chicago to the other just because he heard that a particular record shop had a copy. The clerk told him “A guy just bought it from me online. But since you drove all this way, it’s yours.” Appropriately enough, Laswell’s new label M.O.D. Technologies is responsible for Ask the Ages once again coming back on the market in physical form. The cover art is modified, showing close-ups of the ancient stone faces that looked on at a distance from the old cover. The remastering job gives a the music a slight boost in volume. There is no bonus material—it’s still six tracks spanning 45 minutes. This doesn’t really matter because Ask the Ages sounds just as potent now as it did in 1991. It is a significant step forward from the album he recorded one year prior (1990’s Highlife) and could dominate anything made from his past mentors at the time.
In 1994 Sharrock was on the verge of signing his first label deal. Sharrock died before pen hit paper, morbidly allowing Ask the Ages to enjoy the status of a glorious swan song. In 1991, the reception was lukewarm-to-positive. While Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune clearly saw Ask the Ages for the gutsy jazz-rock album that it was, Robert Christgau of the Village Voice merely shrugged. He gave props to Laswell and drummer Elvin Jones and said nothing else (I’d love to be paid a Manhattan wage for typing sentence fragments followed by hitting the asterisk key three times, but what can you do?). Rolling Stone was enthusiastic, Q not as much. These days, pin any given jazz aficionado against the wall in a dark alley while asking them what Sonny Sharrock’s finest hour was and there’s little question that a majority of your answers will be Ask the Ages. Shredding for the theme to Space Ghost Coast to Coast may have slightly increased his audience, but it’s Ask the Ages that cemented his reputation for good.
For those who have already heard the album, a review like this won’t be of any value. All else may be wondering what makes Ask the Ages do damn great if jazz fans everywhere are drooling over it so much. One factor is the band that Laswell and Sharrock put together. One-of-a-kind skronker Pharoah Sanders plays saxophone, a move that makes sense considering Sharrock’s penchant for noise and the fact that he took the saxophone seriously. The late Elvin Jones, the time keeper for John Coltrane as well as a hell of a lot of other jazz legends, plays a mean drum set for Sharrock’s band. Bassist Charnett Moffett’s career may not be as illustrious as Jones’s or Sanders’s, but was still quite accomplished (he would go on to play on two of Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum albums after Sharrock’s death). The sum of the band’s talents was a fierce force. Less than halfway into opening track “Promises Kept” and Sanders is already blowing his entire life out his horn in a furious storm. Jones is able to follow suit all while keeping a pulse, as does any exceptional drummer. When it’s time to shift gears into a laid-back ballad like “Who Does She Hope to Be?”, the band easily transforms into a convincing bunch of balladeers. If you want old-fashioned bop, they could do that for you with “Little Rock”. If you’re in the mood for melodies that come in longer forms with sprawling rhythm tracks, the band serves it up no problem through the album’s entire second half.
Describing the power of Sharrock’s band helps paint the content itself of Ask the Ages as a modern jazz album unlike any other. It’s tempting to say that the content would still shine no matter who was playing it, but it might be more accurate to say that the two factors feed into one another simultaneously. Sonny Sharrock may be the sole writer or all six tunes, but the creativity doesn’t stop there. Either Sharrock chose the most rockin’ band completely by accident or he knew what he was doing and plotted out his music based on the strength of each musician involved. I’m inclined to believe that latter since he played with Sanders before, but we all still love the serendipitous story of a happy accident.
It doesn’t matter anymore. Sharrock was only 53 when he died, and it’s easy to think of all the material of which we were robbed by such an untimely death. On the other hand, the stuff he did leave behind is fun to absorb and can be appreciated for a lifetime. Ask the Ages is just one piece of that legacy, but what a piece it is. If you haven’t heard it yet, I almost kind of envy your moment of first contact.
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