Summer In The City Part 4: The Black Rock Coalition Tribute To Sonny Sharrock (1940 – 1994)

It was May, 1994 when the Central Park Summer Stage concert series announced their schedule. One of the shows that immediately caught my eye was The Lounge Lizards with Sonny Sharrock opening for them. I had seen The Lounge Lizards several years earlier at The Squat Theater and found them interesting and I was looking forward to hearing them again, knowing that the band had changed significantly since that time (they will the subject of a future post). I was aware of Sonny Sharrock from his playing on the Pharoah Sanders record Tauhid as well as Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground. My quick take on him was that he a guitarist who played free jazz, a little too heavy on the noise/shriek for my taste. Nonetheless I thought it was an interesting bill and I was looking forward to seeing it.

Then a terrible thing happened. On the verge of signing the first major label deal in his entire career, Sonny Sharrock passed away unexpectedly on May 26, just weeks before the show, at the age of 53. The Black Rock Coalition, the New York based artist’s collective put together a band to play Sonny’s music for the show. Like the other show’s I talked about recently, it made me aware of a great musician who previously was not really on my radar.

Sonny Sharrock released 3 records as a leader from the mid sixties to the mid seventies before going into musical semi retirement but he had his fans. One of them was bassist/producer Bill Laswell who coaxed him out of retirement in the mid eighties. With Laswell’s assistance, Sharrock began a very prolific period of his career, playing on numerous Laswell related projects as well as records under his own name, also produced by Laswell. But without a doubt, the greatest exposure that Sonny ever got was for the soundtrack to the Cartoon Network show Space Ghost Coast To Coast, one of the last projects he completed in the studio before his death. It was the music from his later solo records that was the basis for the tribute.

The thing that struck me immediately was the melodic quality of the tunes. Great melodies, great grooves. I could put any of these tunes in a playlist alongside songs like The Allman Brother’s  In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed or Santana’s Samba Pa Ti and they would not feel out of place. This is what Fusion was supposed to sound like. A couple of days after the concert, Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, played a special show showcasing the music of Sonny Sharrock. I recognized many of the tunes from the concert and it was interesting to compare Sonny’s guitar playing to those paying him tribute. Sonny played a Gibson Les Paul with a rich, overdriven tone, reminding me of early Larry Coryell. The principal guitarist for the Black Rock Coalition was Vernon Reid, best known for his playing in the band Living Colour, playing what looked like an Ibanez guitar with a much more modern sounding distortion. Also, Sonny’s playing would veer from melodic single line playing to noisy racket and back again. When Vernon’s playing went out, it wasn’t as jarring but somehow seemed less natural (Note: Please don’t take this as me dissing Vernon Reid’s playing which is amazing. This is just my opinion on comparing the two guitarists in the context of playing the same material).

The clips below (sorry, audio only) are of some of my favorite Sonny Sharrock tunes. I hope that you love them as much as I do and seek out his records. Popular critical consensus is that his best single record is Ask The Ages (1991) which features a killer band of Sharrock, Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax, Charnett Moffett on bass and the amazing Elvin Jones on drums. Once described as “a late free jazz recording for those who do not care for free jazz”, it’s well worth checking out though many may find the more rockier, less jazzy Seize The Rainbow a better place to start.

Sonny Sharrock – “My Song”

Sonny Sharrock – Seize the Rainbow

Sonny Sharrock – Who does she hope to be?

Sonny Sharrock – The Past Adventures of Zydeco Honeycup

Sonny Sharrock – As We Used To Sing

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Posted in Jazz, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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