Elliott Sharps Terraplane: Secret Life

[10 April 2007]

By Robert R. Calder

What to expect?! E#, as the leader’s name gets abbreviated on the CD packaging, can do a lot of things on guitar, and over a wide, wide range of styles or genres or whatever. What he does here isn’t so easy to give a verbal impression of, since on only one track does he play a National steel guitar without amplifier, as Son House or Charlie Patton or indeed their less recorded partner Willie Brown (a legendary guitarist) did. It’s just the guitarist accompanying Eric Mingus’s singing; not a blues, but the sort of sequence of couplets which that performer likes to compose.

The short acoustic guitar feature which opens the set, “Highway Null”, is quietly impressive, and is echoed by “On Down” at the end. However, no sooner is the gentle opener done that “Clandestiny” is off with its plethora of colours, Sharp applying blues guitar devices and presumably some electronic wizardry in a performance which begins somewhat sentimental and—with the aid of Curtis Fowlkes’ trombone and Andy Harding’s baritone sax—gets into the orgiastic. (As Coleman Hawkins once told an innocent young lady singer how a jazz solo got its shape.) 

The next number opens with a reminder, or news of, the resemblance between Eric Mingus’s voice at full bellow and Howlin’ Wolf’s half-bellow. Wolf’s longtime accompanist Hubert Sumlin sounds good as ever on this stomping song, and the horns fit well on “Take My Leave.”

Tracie Morris has a nice half-spoken vocal on “Nobody Know”, and on “Blue State”, Sharp soloing against the horns does some classic Buddy Guy stuff. It’s an instrumental, so no Eric M., but still has some resemblance to things his father did, plus a wide range of guitar effects, and some wild fiddling on what seems to be the shallowest double bass I have ever seen a photo of (played by David Hofstra).  The overall idea seems to be not rock and not jazz, but a reorganisation of blues phrases and patterns and elements—not exactly a cubist reappropriation of the overall range and repertoire of such a bluesman as Howlin’ Wolf, but something akin to yet livelier than any Cubism: musical patterns, phrasings, rhythms, reassembled into new and, Sharp hopes, validly expressive performances.  There is a kind of law of stylization or musical logic to the work of many bluesmen, and while some things are simply not possible, many things are worth trying.

Eric Mingus’s “USA Out of NYC!” seems to intend a verbal meaning I don’t quite get, but the number storms along with I think Ms. Morris’s unannounced echoing within the riff pattern.  The trombonist gets to blow off some hot stuff, and there’s a powerful back beat. Righteous! Sharp even has a jam on his tenor saxophone, very different from the quiet combination of Mingus’s voice and son of Son House acoustic National guitar on “Prime Crime”. 

There’s another bout of Sharp’s super-blues guitar on “Crackertown Two-Step” before Howlin’ Cub Mingus comes back roaring, with Sumlin the blues master very recognizable on guitar: “They Say We Is”.  Lovely to hear Sumlin, whom Sharp apparently (and very reasonably) seems to idolize. 

“Edifice Wrecked” opens with Sharp on tenor sax, in the moderately raspy style J.T. Brown and various others played on Elmore James and even Muddy Waters records, rather than direct out of the jazz mainstream.  It’s almost, no it actually is, a relief for this reviewer to have no loud electric guitar on this development of material like the horn contributions to 1960s blues recordings. Sharp still manages to play very musically, even when using some of the methods Illinois Jacquet long ago pioneered and other tenor saxophonists took up as an alternative to playing the instrument.  With a nice bit of repetitive dancing around a drum, this one could have done with being a little shorter, and the set might have benefitted from Sharp suspecting that as a side-effect of his massive talents, he could sometimes be too nearly overpowering.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elliott-sharps-terraplane-secret-life/