The news of a reissue of Sonny Sharrock‘s 1991 album “Ask the Ages” made me feel nostalgic. I can only wonder how Sharrock’s searing sound will seem in a new “enhanced and re-mastered from the original,” as promised from M.O.D. Technologies, the label run by Bill Laswell and Giacomo Bruzzo. The press release tells me that “M.O.D. resumes and continues the legacy of Axiom, the timeless imprint established in 1989 by Bill Laswell with Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records,” which first released this album, and that Laswell, who produced it, “first heard Sharrock at fourteen.”
I was much older than 14 in 1998, but much younger than I am now. I was editor-in-chief of Jazziz magazine then. For the September issue, in celebration of the magazine’s 15th anniversary, I planned all sorts of special coverage. There were competing essays depicting the period from 1983-1998 as either a jazz Dark Age or a Renaissance. For the review section, I had critics select albums released in 1983 or later and destined to be memorable well into the future.
Among the albums I chose was “Ask the Ages.” Below is what I wrote. I like to think I’d express it better today—and maybe I will, upon listening to this reissue. (Not sure I still stand by my criticism of Laswell’s mix. Still, I stand by my enthusiasm. Everyone should own this album. Save for a few ripples here and there—the power trio Harriet Tubman for instance—I haven’t heard much that followed the path Sharrock was blazing.
Anyway, here’s that old review (sadly, the magazine is not online):
By the time guitarist Sonny Sharrock worked with inventive outfits like Material and Last Exit in the 1980s, he was one of American music’s iconoclasts: singing doo wop in the ‘50s; helping inseminate the avant-garde in the ‘60s, playing alongside both Herbie Mann and Milford Graves.
Still, little could have prepared us for the searing individuality of Sharrock’s last few recordings. “Ask the Ages” was a mission statement at a time when jazz, rock and the avant-garde were having trouble choreographing their dance together, if they even cared to stay in touch.
Drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders drew on direct links with John Coltrane to help Sharrock frame his own metallic “sheets of sound,” which the guitarist just as quickly shredded to shards. There’s a powerful glimmer of the sonic elements within Jimi Hendrix’s music here—guitar timbres that morph like the light of a setting sun, purposeful drones and feedback, and a sweet spot where genre distinctions get erased by pure sound and sheer bliss.
At the time, many efforts at this sort of improvised electric guitar music suffered from inelastic rhythms. Not so here. In fact, the album served as a showcase for Jones too, proving once again how forceful an agent of change are his polyrhythms.
So what if, true to form, producer Bill Laswell placed his fellow bassist, Charnett Moffett a bit too out front in the mix? Nothing could deter Sharrock’s transcendent vision or searing sound. Except mortality: Sharrock died suddenly in 1994, on the eve of a major-label deal. Yet no before leaving us this one.