By Matt Micucci
Sonny Sharrock is a name that features prominently among the lists of greatest jazz guitarists of all time. A virtuoso known for his freakish outbursts on guitar and vulcanic personality, he met his tragic premature and unexpected death in 1991 at the age of 53 due to a heart attack in his hometown in Ossining, New York.
He was just about to sign his first major label deal in his entire career. Instead, he couldn’t even live to see the praise his last album Ask the Ages received, as it was released posthumously.
Ask the Ages is highly acclaimed by critics as one of the greatest jazz guitar albums of all time. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune called it a thrilling and essential albums for fans of the guitar, adding that “despite the power of his playing, Sharrock’s majesty is in the lyricism and warmth he finds in even the most abrasive alleyways. It currently also holds a five-star rating on Allmusic, where Steve Huey cites it as Sharrock’s best work, and was included in in the Spin Alternative Record Guide of 1995 in the list of “Top 100 Alternative Albums”.
In this record, Sharrock sought to channel the spirit of John Conltrane with the support of two big icons of the free jazz and avant garde movement – drummer Elvin Jones, who has played with Coltrane in the past, saxophonist Phraoah Sanders, along with Charnett Mottett on bass.
The record was co-produced by Sharrock and Bill Laswell. Laswell, an American bassist, producer as well as creator and founder of his newest label, M.O.D. Technology, also produced the reissue of Rock of Ages, which has been enhanced and remastered and re-released on November 13, 2015.
Laswell had first heard Sharrock at the age of 14. Emerging from the downtown NYC scene as a producer and bassist to be reckoned with, he was the one who made it his top priority to find the guitarist and coax him out of retirement from the music industry. At the time, he was working as both a chauffeur and a caretaker for mentally challenged children.
They first worked together in 1981. Sharrock appeared on the 1981 record Memory Serves, and then was a member of the punk/jazz band Last Exit, together with Peter Brotzmann, Laswell himself and Ronald Shannon Jackson. In 1991, Sharrock claimed during an interview that “the last five years have been pretty strange for me, because I went twelve years without making a record at all, and then in the last five years, I’ve made seven records under my own name. That’s pretty strange.”
Ask the Ages was one regarded as the finest hour not only in the collaboration between Laswell and Sharrock, but also in Sharrock’s entire career. This was the record that sought to put Sharrock back in touch with his out-jazz beginnings but without forsaking his rock stylings. Now, nearly a quarter century old but has lost none of its immediacy and freshness.