Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages (1991), with its depth-defying groove and meet-up of ambition and gravitas, is the portrait of a maturing artist hitting his stride. Sharrock was 51 and riding a creative wave — one foot in the free jazz he brought his guitar to in the 1960s, one in the “collision music” envisioned by musical partner and producer Bill Laswell — when he made this record with a sympathetic band of jazz leaders: drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and bassist Charnett Moffett. A pleasurably melodic challenge, Sharrock’s last record before his passing in 1994 manages to be both a ripping rock guitar album and an American jazz classic, steeped in themes of race, religion, and identity.
The participation of Jones and Sanders is key to creating this mood, their link to John Coltrane making for that ghost’s heavy presence, but Sharrock’s post-Hendrix tone and attack works a territory not dissimilar to Pete Cosey’s and Reggie Lucas’s contributions to Miles Davis’s live records in the 1970s, or Eddie Hazel’s Funkadelicisms. There is a lot of satisfying growl here.
The penultimate tune in the set, “Many Mansions” takes John 14:2 across a droning chord sequence, a woozy blues backgrounding Sanders’ shrieking solos and Sharrock’s responses. The deft touch of Jones and Moffett keeps us wading in the water, moving towards an undertow of deep meditation. Original album version here as well as an incendiary performance from Frankfurt in 1992.
Powerful, spirited, spiritual.
Note: the image of Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Sharrock is in all likelihood from a Sanders-led tour in the late 1960s, when the two initially collaborated. It’s just too good an image not to use in description of the music.
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