‘Musician’ seems a paltry way to describe Elliott Sharp because he is so many things—multi-instrumentalist (sax, clarinet, guitar), composer of film scores, operas, jazz and blues recordings, bandleader, producer, sound-artist, teacher, writer and longtime mainstay of NYC’s avant-garde. But at heart he is a musician, with a capital ‘M’. Music has been his life since he began classical training on piano at age 6. A voracious lover of all genres, he cites a chance meeting with Jimi Hendrix among his life-changing moments. Now, at 70, he can look back on the legacy he has created (partly chronicled in the 2008 documentary Doing The Don’t) while also moving inexorably forward. John Kruth, another multi-instrumentalist brainiac, sat down with Elliott at his New York home.
Elliott Sharp has spent a lifetime navigating the perpetually shifting seas of music, seeking new, sonic horizons while trying to remain free from the trick bag of limitations imposed upon him by those lacking in imagination, education, and a sense of adventure. Yet, despite the shortsightedness of record companies, critics, and deejays, Sharp, who turned 70 last March, continues to endure. While plenty of people walk around with a headful of ideas, Elliott has an uncanny knack for conceiving projects and seeing them through – getting them performed and recorded, even if he must do it himself – which is often the case. He is, what my grandfather Harry used to call “a real macher.” One glance at his massive discography and you can see that Sharp gets things done.
But he really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Raised by parents with high ideals and aspirations – his father, Bernard, an artist, painter, and sculptor who worked in the basement/studio of their White Plains home, and his mother Eugenie, a French Holocaust survivor, set him on a rigorous path of intellectual and artistic pursuits.
At age 6, Elliott began mastering the tricky technique of classical piano, perfecting Czerny exercises to the point of distraction. By 8 years old, he was playing his “first New York gig,” performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 at the Carnegie Recital Hall. The experience nearly drove the poor kid nuts. The stress caused a severe asthma attack which put him in the hospital: “I almost burst a lung. My parents expected me to be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and a concert pianist,” he laughed. “Eventually, I stopped playing piano and began playing clarinet, figuring it would help me with my lungs.”
Sharp had big ears and listened to everything from the electric guitar innovations of Les Paul, James Burton and Chet Atkins to the “Maximum R&B” of high-voltage British blues groups like the Yardbirds and Rolling Stones. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield struck him like a lightning bolt, while the Beatles’ psychedelia and Dylan’s surreal poetics stretched the possibilities of popular music. After hearing John Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, and the fractured phrasing of Thelonious Monk’s cubist piano, Sharp realized the sky had no roof.
But it was Jimi Hendrix who inspired Elliott to get his large hands on a Fender amp and his first electric guitar, a Hagstrom (the Swedish six-string known for their sonorous pickups). A science geek of the first order, Sharp quickly built his own fuzz box. “I’d make noise on the guitar. I didn’t know I was improvising. It was solipsistic. I’d lock myself in my room so I couldn’t hear the yelling about the feedback and just play.”
It wasn’t long before Sharp taped a crystal microphone to the bell of his clarinet and played it through his home-made distortion unit, which inevitably led him to the squawk and growl of the bass clarinet. “When I heard [Eric] Dolphy’s playing, it was like a voice from Mars. It was so vocal. It was like he was speaking in tongues. I knew I had to get one at some point.”
In summer of 1968, before his senior year in high school, Elliott received the Ford Foundation “Future Scientist of America” fellowship and attended Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. The aspiring junior scientist soon began playing the blues with a glass test tube over his finger in lieu of breaking the neck off a wine bottle for a slide. He learned the diabolical intricacies of Robert Johnson songs, joined an anarchist folk band and covered the twisted tunes of the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs (Sharp would later record the Fugs’ Tuli Kupferberg in 1982 for his State of the Union album, which featured one-minute performances by a smattering of hip artists including Spalding Gray and Fred Frith.)
A self-described electronics freak with a passion for amateur radio, Sharp soon began experimenting with ring modulators and oscillators to conjure up a swirling cacophony of electronic sound. A graveyard shift as a deejay on WRCT further broadened his sonic horizons, with a library of sonic delights at his fingertips, as he spun tracks from the ESP and Jazz Actuel labels, along with the timeless guitar inventions of John Fahey, and the avant-auditory delights of Harry Partch, Morton Subotnick and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
A voracious student, Elliott devoured book after book on music, from Iannis Xenakis’ Formalized Music (“Because of the musical and the mathematical connection,” he pointed out) to Cage’s Silence, to the musings of Harry Partch.
While we can learn a lot from books, coming face to face with a master provides a whole different level of education. On July 7, 1969, Elliott Sharp had made the sojourn to Manny’s Music on 48th Street, NYC, aka “Guitar Row.” While pounding out the three-chord mantra of “Gloria,” on a shiny new guitar just off the rack, Elliott looked down to see a pair of shining gold boots before his eyes. Raising his head, he found the gold boots attached to a pair of turquoise legs which that led up to a lithe, exotically draped torso, topped off with the smiling Buddha head of Jimi Hendrix, already in full regalia to appear later that night on The Dick Cavett Show. Suddenly the new guitar and hypnotic rhythm of Van Morrison’s ritual dance lost its appeal and Sharp stood around with just two other workers in the store, gawking at the Guitar God as he tried out multiple fuzz boxes. “I was already a huge Hendrix freak, so this was like a private concert, a true blessing from the godhead. Life was never the same since that day,” Elliott declared.
Later, as a student at Cornell University, he caught Sonny Sharrock shredding his six-string as a member of Herbie Mann’s band. Following this pair of auspicious indoctrinations, no further instruction was needed. Sharp had found his path.
“I tried to make the sounds I heard Albert Ayler and [John] Coltrane doing except without the technique,” Sharp explained. “I loved [John McLaughlin’s] Mahavishnu [Orchestra], Weather Report and Miles. Coltrane was a massively technical player. So, I did a lot of woodshedding on my instruments. I was into a more technical aspect of playing back in the early Seventies and used to write jazzy pieces for rock and funk bands that would come out of my instrumental technique. Now I’m not as good a player by any means. I’ve lost a lot of technique but I’m a much better musician because my hearing is better.”
One of Elliott’s most important mentors along the way was the great trombonist Roswell Rudd, (known for his collaborations with Archie Shepp, Carla Bley and Steve Lacy) with whom he crossed paths during his “idyllic” days at Bard College.
Sharp said he “came up through the mid-Seventies/punk/do it yourself independent music scene and was playing in weird rock and roll bands. I was independent from an early age and have always been a workaholic. It’s what I love doing. But I’ve had very little resources, so I had to find a way to survive because I could never have a normal job. It would just kill me! [Sharp actually survived a few jobs over the years, from working at the post office, to book depositories and Manpower temp jobs.] So, I’ve had to be extra resourceful. Plus, record companies would never touch my music.”
“People dis me for being a composer. But a composer isn’t just a dead European guy with a powdered wig. As you can see, I wear no wig! [Sharp laughed brushing his shiny shaved dome with his hand]. While Elliott understandably “felt little resonance with academics,” he knows how to write a grant, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and the Berlin Prize in Musical Composition the following year. Elliott’s works have been recorded on several occasions by the Soldier String Quartet, while other compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet and at the Venice Biennale (in 2003 and 2006).
“You get a sound in your ear and then you want to orchestrate it -whether it’s for solo acoustic guitar or an orchestra. My playing is actually an outgrowth of my compositional work… But I think it must be rough to be a young composer these days,” he adds. “It must be like trying to reinvent the flat tire.”
Having performed and recorded with Sharp myself in an ethno/jazz improvisational ensemble known as Noodle Shop (along with multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel of Camper van Beethoven, and Billy Ficca, drummer of Television) I can understand how some people might feel inhibited by the “East Village Nosferatu,” as The Wall Street Journal dubbed him in 2011. Elliott comes off like a “very serious” guy, dressed all in black with his shaved noggin. But he’s got a deliciously dry wit, punctuated by copious puns. You find yourself laughing a lot in his presence, while occasionally stunned at the breadth of his knowledge and experience.
Dismissed by those who maintain artists possessing a great intellect equates an inability to express themselves emotionally, Sharp has found himself exiled to a similar no-man’s land of musical styles as multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. Whether perceived as aloof, calculated, analytical or scientific, Sharp has cautiously guarded and preserved a direct connection to the “pure mystery” of music.
Check Elliott’s Wikipedia page and it lists the various genres of his musical exploration from contemporary classical, experimental, free improvisation, jazz, [and] avant-garde. So, in the spirit of our subject, we’ll take the path least trodden and delve into what perhaps might be his most accessible band, Terraplane.
While some of Sharp’s more ambitious compositions have, at times, left me in the dust, I find his band Terraplane to be one of his most visceral and satisfying projects. Formed in 1991, the lineup has fluctuated with each tour and recording. But it’s the spirit of the music that concerns us.
Terraplane blends various shades of blues with aspects of hardcore and free jazz, and poetics, both imagist and political. At the heart of the music, is Sharp’s guitar playing, which expands on the fractured grooves and language of Captain Beefheart’s cubist blues.
“I don’t have any ‘rock credibility!’” he laughed. “Rockers think I’m a classical composer! I’ve had people come up and tell me, ‘I didn’t know you actually knew how to play guitar,’ as if what I’m doing is just randomly slapping the strings. But I always related to Charlie Parker who said, you have to ‘learn all the scales, all the chords and how they fit together, but once you know it – forget that shit and just play the music! I don’t want to put anyone down but you’ve gotta know the history of the music or otherwise you’re wasting a lot of energy. Maybe my epitaph will be, ‘Have one foot in the past, have one foot in the future and put your ass in the present.’”
When asked about the kind of music he makes, Sharp often replies that he works by “a process of elimination, that helps to define what it isn’t.” While his band Carbon is loud electric, and in Sharp’s words, “spiky,” it can’t be described as “rock.” And although improvisation is a key component of his music, it’s hardly jazz in any traditional sense. “My work is not nostalgic by nature,” he points out.
One passage in Elliott’s 2019 memoir IrRational Music perfectly recounts the kind of flack he’s taken over the years for his idiosyncratic approach to creating new sounds. While the Downtown scene of the late Seventies/early Eighties is often glorified as some kind of golden age of experimental music, it didn’t come without a price. Sharp recalls a rude confrontation at the Ear Inn one night:
Drunk: “Hey, what is that shit?”
E#: “It’s just music.”
Drunk: “That ain’t music.”
E#: (Having worked at the post office and understanding what “going postal” means from first-hand experience, Sharp’s sense of self-preservation allowed his mind to rage, while his lips remained tightly sealed. But inside his head he was screaming, “This IS music, motherfucker, and do you know why? Cuz I’m playing it!”
While somewhat less traumatic than Ornette Coleman having his horn ripped out of his hands and thrown under an oncoming bus, Elliott certainly paid some dues in his early days in New York. Further reading in his book recounts living off 35-cent slices of pizza and sleeping on a cold winter’s night beside his tube amplifier, the only heat source in his East Village walkup.
“In his book, Black Music, Amiri Baraka, back when he was LeRoi Jones, said that no matter how far out free jazz got, you could still hear the blues cry in it and I agree,” Sharp explained. “The vocal quality in free jazz always resonated with me. I’d been playing in Mark Dagley’s band called Hi Sheriffs of Blue in the early Eighties and was looking for that meeting point, where I could bring the Albert Ayler/Ornette [Coleman] thing in on my horn [Sharp mostly alternates between tenor and soprano saxophone and bass clarinet]. At the same time, I was dealing with the logistical problems of how to organize large musical forces in New York with no time, money or place to rehearse.”
But it turns out that Sharp is one pretty tough dude. In April 1975, after having participated in a student demonstration at Cornell, in support of the ill treatment of Attica State Prison inmates, the police retaliated, “grabbing people and indiscriminately bashing them with nightsticks.” Elliott, who was pegged as the ringleader, wound up in the hoosegow, facing a 35-year sentence after allegedly stabbing a security guard. At the time, a friend told him he was “lucky [he was] white – if you were black, they would have killed you.”
Sadly, things haven’t changed much and this dark moment in Sharp’s life, and the memory of 18 months of depositions and hearings topped off by the university’s suspension forever tainted his attitude towards authority. While Elliott was cleared of all charges, the experience still loans some credence to Terraplane’s recent album, Century, released July 15, 2021. In the opening track, “Tol’ Mah Capn,” Tracie Morris bitterly sings she wants to “Spit in his coffee,” as Sharp conjures snaky leads as the rhythm section propels you down a dusty Delta road until the song suddenly vanishes like a phantom into the hydro-carbon sunset. A very timely blues, “Toppling Statues” reflects the zeitgeist of this dark age we are currently struggling through. There is something happening here that goes beyond music. Eric Mingus’ powerful vocals are more like an incantation against the plague racism. The album feels like a ritual, a talisman of a ceremony to heal the world gone wrong.
As Mingus stated, “At the heart of Terraplane is the blues, a music Eric Mingus [that] in itself is political, created by folks whose mere existence is a political statement. Elliott takes that tradition and runs with it, head on and we the band members march side by side with him.”
Century began in 2020 as a project for the Bavarian Radio in Munich, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the book Negro, a controversial collection of prose, poems, and song lyrics by Black authors Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, which shook up the white world with their visions of lynching and systemic racism. As Sharp wrote: “The n-word was in common usage [then] and is indeed found in some of these lyrics. A century later, how much has changed?”
With the opening riff of “Stan Boys Stan,” my cat’s ears are peeled back. There is a questioning, slightly deranged look in her green eyes, yet she maintains her rigid position on the chair despite her instinct to bolt as the groove catches fire. By the song’s coda Sharp’s guitar climbs a Jacob’s ladder of raw smoldering sound. “Exit Strategy” is a low-riding groover with Don McKenzie’s drums that punch holes in your skull. “I leave by night, when the moon is out,” Mingus growls. Sharp’s guitar coils and winds, snarling like a neon rattlesnake spitting venom in your brain. Topped off a few old tracks by Hubert Sumlin (Yes! Howlin’ Wolf’s former guitarist who recorded and toured with the band) and a few Hendrix-style liquid riffs ala “Rainy Day Dream Away” evoke that moment in time when a young Elliott Sharp looked up at Jimi at Manny’s Music years ago.
Built on a future/past mash-up of Tracie Morris’ vocals, a clanky banjo, sizzling slide and electronica, “Went to Atlanta” is a stunning study in the contrasts of have/have nots/ white/blacks/rich and poor. “Whip and Trigger” continues the disparity between black and white, over a wobbly fun-house mirror groove as Sharp grabs his tenor sax for some atonal skronking over the thunder and roll of a big booming boxy drum kit.
“Tulsa ’21” opens with bitter notes that fall like tears as Sharp makes that slide guitar talk, but in a different, more cryptic language than anything Elmore James or J.B. Hutto ever spoke. Within the layers of grungy guitars, and Don McKenzie’s drums pummeling you upside the head like a boxer with concrete gloves, you still can’t mistake it for anything but the blues.
A sentiment that rings as true today as when the blind violinist, Alfred Reed wrote it, you got to love Terraplane’s re-working of the Depression-era classic, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” The tune is a perfect vehicle for Mingus’ blue growl and Sharp’s soaring, elastic blues riffs, which sounds nothing like Ry Cooder’s earlier interpretation.
The intro of “The Murder of Elijah McClain” begins like remorseful ballad offering a brief, sorrowful moment of repose before exploding into the chaos that grief, anger and confusion brings from yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. The piece bursts wide open as Sharp’s lead guitar burns and sears over the ghostly phantom howl of Melanie Dyer’s viola. A deeply emotional and fitting homage to the senseless murder a young man one friend described as “a light in a whole lot of darkness.”
As the title implies, Century is a sonic journey, melding a profusion of sounds and styles, old and new, to buoy its message. With Mingus’s vocals a bit smoother around the edges, “Money Man” is a down and dirty minor blues vamp, reminiscent a lost track from Superfly, while “Whatcha Gonna do,” the album’s closing track “burns like a coal-carpet,” melding the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” with “What’s Goin’ On” (yes, that’s Sharp’s swirling soprano sax bringin’ the flava) with the foreboding atmosphere of Sly Stone’s burned-out basement.
Unable to tour over the course of the COVID pandemic, Sharp has been holed up in New York, looking after his family, digging through archives, finishing up old projects and building a series of odd custom guitars, electric mandolins and mandocellos, some with strange mutant double necks.
Despite all the changes the world throws him, Sharp at 70, remains committed to his artistic vision as an experimental composer, multi-instrumentalist, itinerant urban griot and self-described “Zen-Groucho Marxist.”
For further reading, check out Elliott’s 2019 memoir IrRational Music (Terra Nova Press).