Sonny Sharrock in Ossining

Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994) was a jazz guitarist who grew up, lived much of his life and ultimately died in Ossining. Known for a dissonant avant-garde improvisational style, he studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and later played and recorded with Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, Larry Coryell, The Sun Ra Arkestra, The Adderly Brothers, Herbie Hancock, and John McLaughlin to name a few. Tower Records ( ) offers more than a dozen Sharrock recordings including Mile Davis's Tribute to Jack Johnson which Miles considered one of his finest.

Sharrock co-founded a jazz venue in Ossining near the train station called "One Station Plaza" which later moved to Peekskill and only recently in 2005 closed its doors. One Station Plaza is looking for a new home. (It would be great to bring it home to Ossining.) This was a serious jazz venue and was played by notables including Harry Connick Jr.


The following article is from the New York Times, May 5, 1991:
Interview and article by Mark Dery

Sonny Sharrock knows what It's like to hold lightning in his bare hands. During the late 60's, in an attempt to emulate the atonal squeals and spluttering trills of saxophonists like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, Sharrock turned up his amplifier and invented free jazz guitar. It was a music of raw power and high voltage. Since then, he has become best known for his performances on records by Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Mann, Wayne Shorter, Don Cherry and Miles Davis. More recently, the guitarist, who is based in Ossining, N.Y., has been recognized as the gray eminence of Manhattan's downtown avant-garde. The eclectic producer-bass player Bill Laswell, the deconstructionist fusion group Machine Gun and the "no-wave" guitarist-turned-bal- adeer; Arto Lindsay have all cited him as a seminal influence. It would be hard to imagine their music without Mr. Sharrock's blistering noise, brute volume and unorthodox picking techniques in a jazz context. With the back-to-back appearance of three new albums, Mr. Sharrock stands a chance of reaching a wider audience. "Highlife" (Enemy), the latest from the Sonny Sharrock Band, is currently in record stores. Next month will bring "Faith Moves" (CMP), an album of duets with the guitarist Nicky Skopelitis. In July will come "Ask the Ages," (Axiom/Island), Mr. Sharrock's first solo effort for a major label since 1975. It is a long- awaited collaboration with Mr. Sanders on alto saxophone, Elvin Jones on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass. (This month the guitarist also begins a 28-city European tour.) Mr. Sharrock's public profile is higher than it has been in years, and the age of the audiences who pack his concerts at lower Manhattan nightclubs seems to be getting younger and younger. During their last show at the Knitting Factory, the Sonny Sharrock Band -- Mr. Sharrock on guitar, Dave Snider on keyboards, Charles Baldwin on bass, Abe Speller and Lance Carter on drums -- tore through numbers like "Dick Dogs," an instrumental that peels out with a heavy-metal figure, sideswipes a filigreed fusion jazz line, then fishtails into Mr. Sharrock's skidding, crashing solo. In the brief lulls between songs, the overflow crowd whooped itself hoarse. Mr. Sharrock, who will turn 51 in August, is the hottest thing in punk jazz. The brindle-haired, bearish guitarist views his newfound popularity with what might be called good-natured cynicism. "If I had done things differently I might be getting grants, performing in museums, smoking a pipe," he says with a poker face. "I would be rich by now, or at least well respected -- which I'm neither!" He burst into booming laughter, then turned serious "The other night, my wife told me that one of my problems is that I'm always changing before people have a chance to catch up with what I've already done. But the music is evolving, and I can't wait around. It gets to be very frustrating, talking to record companies who told me 20 years ago,Sonny, you're 20 years ahead of your time.' Well, I've waited 20 years and now what? I go back to the record companies, and they say, oh, we don't know; it's a little far out."

Even so, Mr. Sharrock knew his route would be a rocky one, even before he took his first step. In 1959, at the age of 19, Mr. Sharrock had a life-changing experience. Lying awake one night, his radio tuned to the jazz disk jockey Symphony Sid, the young musician suddenly found himself enveloped by the impressionistic, modal strains of "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis. "I didn't sleep for about three days, the music was so incredible," he recalls. "I said to myself,' have to play this music, and I'm scared to death because I really don't think you can do this and be successful.' I was frightened, but I thought, Hell, this is probably the only thing in the world that I'm ever going to have enough courage to stand up for. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Sharrock took up the guitar (were it not for his asthma, he would have been a saxophonist); and in the years that followed he set about translating the highly idiosyncratic gestures of his horn- playing idols to his own instrument. He conjured Mr. Sanders's screeching tone, generated by overblowing, by bearing down heavily on his strings and pushing his amplifier past its limits to produce notes so rich in distorted overtones that they sounded almost chordal. To summon the key clicks and breathy chuffing of Albert Ayler, he muted his strings with one hand, scrubbing and scrabbling at them with the other. And from both players he derived his patented "buzz-saw trill" rapid,mandolinlike picking meant to suggest flutter-tonguing, a technique used by reed players to produce flurries of notes.

On "Tauhid" (Impulse), recorded with Mr. Sanders in 1966, and "Black Woman" (Vortex) and "Monkey Pockie Boo" (BYG), released under his own name in 1969 and 1970, respectively, Mr. Sharrock seemed determined to challenge the a prior assumptions of jazz guitar. Whereas classic jazz guitarists such as Jim Hall or Joe Pass play lush, pianistic chord solos enlivened by walking bass lines, Mr. Sharrock substitutes simple triads and sometimes eschews chords gether, using buzzing drones to anchor an improvised passage. When they solo, guitarists invariably gravitate toward the higher strings, whose piercing, trebly tone slices,through the accompaniment; Mr. Sharrock lingers in the instrument's lower registers, where the sound is dark and robust. Most strikingly, jazz guitarists, from Django Reinhardt to George Benson, are noted for their warm, brassy tone and cleanly articulated phrases; Mr. Sharrock's tone is grungy, his articulation ruddy. Fumbling at the strings with his stubby fingers, he makes his guitar stammer.The effect is one of awkward honesty.

In 1980, that painfully truthful quality caught the ear of the producer Bill Laswell. It was Mr. Laswell who introduced Mr. Sharrock to the East Village experimental music scene, spotlighting the guitarist on "Memory Serves" (Elektra/Musician), a 1982 release by the fractured jazz-funk band Material. Mr. Laswell subsequently produced two of the guitarist's American releases, "Guitar" (Enemy) and "Seize the Rainbow" (Enemy), and invited him to join the band Last Exit, an exercise in musical gene splicing that crossbred free-jazz, blues, heavy metal and noise. Especially noise. It is Mr. Sharrock's use of noise that led one jazz critic to dream wistfuliy of tossing him and his electric guitar into a water-filled bathtub, and it is noise that has earned him a following among alternative-rock fans. But Mr. Sharrock's musical persona has another, equally significant face. It is a side that is bewitched by beauty, the one that still hears echoes of the Orioles, the Moonglows, the Flamingos and all the other doo-wop groups whose ethereal, honeyed harmonies floated from his radio when he was a teenager. Happily, that side comes to the fore on his new recordings.

On the forthcoming album "Faith Moves," Mr. Sharrock threads dreamy, pastel melodies through multicultural folk music, played by Mr. Skopelitis on acoustic stringed instruments from all over the world. On "Ask the Ages," he pays tribute to what he calls "a time of much magic," the heyday of free jazz in the 60's, .framing soulful phrases with Elvin Jones's jittery drums and Pharoah Sanders's blatting saxophone. On the record "Highlife," he turns "All My Trials," a winsome folk tune popularized by Harry Belafonte, into a bitter-sweet mingling of kick-up the-heels ebullience and lump-in-the-throat sadness. By shifting the song from its traditional time signature to a highly syncopated one, he gives it a sunny, sprightly feel, then adds a yearning guitar solo for dramatic effect. "Highlife," based on a traditional African melody Mr. Sharrock first encountered while playing with the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, offers exuberant Afro-pop, festooned with splashes of bright color. And "Kate" reworks a swooningly beautiful melody from "Wuthering Heights," by the English pop singer Kate Bush. Atonality and angularity poke through in spots, as in the slashing guitar solo near the end of "Venus/ Upper Egypt," by Mr. Sanders, but there is a sense of balance, of propertion in "Highlife" that is new to Mr. Sharrock's music. "in the last few years," he says, "I've been trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song. I know it's possible. I remember seeing John Coltrane standing there, his saxophone screaming; hearing the Flamingos sing at the Apollo. All that pretty music! I hope I'm as greedy as those musicians were. I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings." His laughter peals like a bent blues note. "I want it all!"


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