Friday, October 23, 2015

CD Review: Last Exit - Iron Path

Last Exit
Iron Path

There wasn't much fanfare made when ESP reissued this 1988 album, the only Last Exit session recorded in the studio, back in the spring. It deserves the attention because it captured the raucous quartet coming together in ways that their sprawling improvisations often simply hinted at.

Of course, Last Exit was a ball of sonic fire. Any group with saxophonist Peter Brotzmann will never be mistaken for a lounge act. But combine him with guitarist Sonny Sharrock (whose days with Herbie Mann were a distant memory by this time), drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who had come off a stint with Cecil Taylor and was leading the avant-funk Decoding Society around the same time) and bassist Bill Laswell (he of Material, the original Golden Palominos and all things iconoclastic), and the results are a band of jazz guys who could reduce any of that era's metal bands to a pile of hair gel and splinters.

While I'll admit I don't know the bulk of the band's catalog, pieces I've heard over the years struck me more as a group of wild improvisers playing at the same time, but not necessarily playing together. It resided more in the zone between the exhilaration of free-blowing chaos and nasty grooves. Heavy, for sure, but hard to grab onto. The studio gave them time to focus and that's apparent immediately. "Prayer" brings it all together. Opening the album solemnly, it catches fire with an E chord roaring over a wave of drums, with space for a chord change in between. The music doesn't need a backbeat to rock. It flows out of the speakers like an angry tide.

Typically, Sharrock sets up the melodic scenery with Laswell, before going off into some six-string chaos, with the bassist maintaining a link between the guitar and drums. Brotzmann adds to the wildness on top, screaming and shrieking on tenor or bass clarinet. On "Eye for an Eye" it sounds like he's matching wits with Laswell, unleashing gargantuan honks now on the bass saxophone. As brutal as the band could be, they could offer brief respites with brighter moments. "Sand Dancer" offers a brief riff from Laswell's upper register, which sounds close to a soul idea.

Less than four years later, Sharrock would release Ask the Ages, one of the highlights of his career, with Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones and Charnett Moffatt fleshing out his vision of heavy jazz. While it came off like a more song-oriented version of Last Exit (and even included a tender ballad). it's likely it never would have occurred without the experiments he made with Last Exit.

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