Thursday, January 07, 2016

CD Review: Sonny Sharrock - Ask the Ages

Sonny Sharrock
Ask the Ages
(M.O.D. Technologies)

Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages was nothing short of a landmark when it was originally released in 1991. The lineup alone was enough to get people's attention. Drummer Elvin Jones was still playing regularly, though his Jazz Machine might not have had the gale-force power of his earlier work. By then, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' music had softened from his frenzied shrieks to levels that were a bit more standard at best, and slick at worst. Bassist Charnett Moffett (son of Ornette Coleman's associate Charles) had played with the Marsalises but could clearly rise to the occasion with these guys.

On top of that, there was the leader/guitarist, who had played in both commercial settings with people like Herbie Mann, and on wild free jazz sessions, the latter which he once brushed off in an interview, saying it was too self-indulgent. A year or two prior to this album, Sharrock appeared on one of the Live at the Knitting Factory compilations released by A&M, playing wild licks over funky backbeats, so anything was likely.

While Sharrock helped bring a rock feeling to the free improvisation in Last Exit (a group whose instrumentation was close to this one), Ask the Ages was a song-oriented album, and a strong one at that. Each track kicks off with a melody that tugs at the ear, from the tender "Who Does She Hope to Be" to the churning 6/8 groove of "Many Mansions" (which I swear Sharrock recorded with Byard Lancaster on his It's Not Up to Us album in 1966).

All-star sessions can often be a crapshoot, but everyone came to session ready to live up to the reputation associated with them. Jones constantly adds spark, not to mention a number of his thunderous pressrolls. Sanders emits some wild shrieks and also thrives during the more balanced sections of the tunes, switching to soprano on a few tracks. Moffatt gets a few solo moments, but mostly provides the solid foundation that enables the rest of the crew to lift off.

1991 was a transitional year for music, since Nirvana broke down the Billboard barriers for punk rock. On the jazz front, the CD reissue industry was letting us college radio kids discover the wealth of music that originally came out on Blue Note and Impulse! Then, with Ask the Ages, here was a group of veterans pointing ahead to the future of jazz, in a way that also appealed to our indie rock/hard rock sensibilities.

Sharrock would only live three more years, dying suddenly of a heart attack at age 53. This album was a defining moment in a short but diverse career, and is arguably the strongest rock-jazz album since Tony Williams Lifetime's Turn It Over album from the late '60s. While that album was a product of its time and bares a certain amount of chaos to it, Ask the Ages comes across with a clear focus and sounds as powerful today as it did a quarter century ago.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for bringing light to this reissue, deserving of epic attention and praise. Sonny was a pioneer that has yet to be fully appreciated, combining the creative force of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix in their own time! The re-mix of this already classic album is incredible. Keep up the great work, Mike. Thank you again!!!