Sunday, 29 March 2009

Sonny Sharrock - Monkey / Pockie / Boo

Unlike today, the initial “birth” period of avant-jazz spawned only a small handful of revered guitarists (even still, I would argue, whilst there are many revered avant-jazz guitarists today, only a few of them actually deserve any credit). The first wave of the Diaspora came with that most notable spear-head Derek Bailey; but even he would claim to have somewhat of a dishevelled relationship with the “free-jazz” ethic. However, it is the common association with Derek’s work (whether he liked it or not), and very few guitarists have come close to challenging his thrown. Sonny Sharrock could have been a that worthy adversary.

Having played with many avant-jazz monoliths (Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, and Miles Davis to name a few), Sonny came into his own with his first two albums as leader: “Black Woman” (1969); and “Monkey - Pockie - Boo” (1970). Whilst both seem to have been informed a little by rock psychedelia: “Black Woman” (an ode to his wife Linda Sharrock who features on both albums) resides on a more jubilant expression of the guitar and avant-composition, referring to mariachi scales and celebratory Afro-centric chants, juxtaposed with thunderous rhythm sections and Linda’s striking and almost egregious vocal screeches; “Monkey - Pockie - Boo” (recorded in Paris, originally as part of the Actuel series) on the other hand ventures down a darker, sparser, and unsettling path.

The first side is dedicated solely to the 17 minute long epic “27th Day”. If the album had been any more successful, this--it could be argued--would be the archetypal blueprint of many of the avant-folk bands of yesteryear: long drones, here represented by Beb Guerin’s sustained bowing of double-bass chords; a very dynamic approach to speaking in tongues largely taken up by the then pregnant Linda; (pre-)Corsano-esque drum rolls provided by Jacques Thollot; and a structure that is set off from ethereal / brewing modal melodies, which slowly develops into a jazz “freak out”. As Sonny’s guitar creeps in under Linda’s vocals, it is dangerous, relentless, and (unlike “Black Woman”) explores a more atonal avenue with a very subtle use of effects, reminiscent of things to come (early Sonic Youth for example).

Exciting as it is, the guitar playing on “27th Day” is clearer and more manageable than on the next piece. “Soon” is loosely framed around Linda’s A capella introduction; neatly sung and referential to early African-American folk music. This is then closely followed by a fierce onslaught of the group playing as free as can be. A lot harder to digest than side one, “Soon” is perhaps more courageous in it’s attempts, and Sonny’s (for the most part) still maintains an intricate control over his instrument. The title track “Monkey - Pockie - Boo”, however, displays a more approach to avant-jazz. Beginning with Beb demonstrating pizzicato techniques on the bass, this is contrasted by Jacques’ fluid brushing of the drums. This is then further contrasted by the Afro-centric chant sung by both Sonny and Linda, leaving the listener with an oddly unsettling end to the record.

Both of the mentioned albums highlight Sonny’s potential as a guitar player. When I listen to them I truly believe that he could have overthrown Bailey as the avant-jazz guitar hero if it weren't for his heinous career move. It’s a shame that, when listen to the rest of Sonny’s oeuvre, it’s mostly littered with wretched fusion schlock; however, we shouldn’t let that get in the way of enjoying these awesome records should we?