Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Sonny Sharrock, Parkdale, October 1991

JAZZ GUITAR HAS AN UNDESERVED REPUTATION AS A WALLFLOWER INSTRUMENT, either quietly comping in time behind soloists and singers or emerging now and then for eight bars of tasteful soloing in a dulcet tone. As an erstwhile guitarist, I remember wondering if there were any jazz guitarists who had the sort of ferocity I'd come to love in musicians like John Coltrane, so I asked my friend and jazz mentor, Tim Powis.

"Oh, that would be Sonny Sharrock."

Almost on cue, Sharrock - who had up till the mid-'80s been a fairly obscure figure from the tail end of free jazz, with a handful of very scarce records as a leader - suddenly burst into view as part of Last Exit, a supergroup of sorts that was often described as "heavy metal jazz." Sharrock, who played the classic hard rock combination of a Les Paul Custom through a Marshall stack, contributed sheets of noise and feedback squalls over the pummeling rhythm section of Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson, while saxophonist Peter Brötzmann added squeals and foghorn bellows to the din. Their debut album remains one of my favorite records of the '80s.

Sonny Sharrock, Music Gallery, Toronto, Feb. 1988

We snapped up their records and waited (in vain, it would transpire) for the group to pass through town, but one day the Nerve grapevine buzzed with the news that Sharrock was coming to town on a day's notice, as part of a trio with guitarist Henry Kaiser and drummer Charles Noyes.

With the blessing of Nerve editor Dave, we descended on the Music Gallery that night for an interview and startled Sharrock with our enthusiasm. He had a great sense of humour about it all, and doubtless buoyed by his sudden high profile, gleefully posed for my camera hugging the head of his Marshall stack. I wasn't often starstruck, even then, but I remember feeling like I'd had a brush with greatness.

Sonny Sharrock, Parkdale, October 1991

Three years later, after Last Exit had revived his career and resulted in a half dozen solo albums, Sharrock passed through Toronto again for a gig. Tim assigned me to do a shoot with him for, I believe, HMV magazine, where he was editor, and I arranged for him to come by my Parkdale studio.

Fully in the throes of cross-processing mania, I set him up in a crossfire of lights in the studio, one strobe gelled deep blue, and a tungsten fresnel light to the side to give a warm highlight. I let the shutter stay open to catch a bit of blur while he played his Les Paul, plugged into my Fender amp, while he duetted with himself on one of his own records.

Sonny Sharrock, Parkdale, October 1991

I reversed the colours for another couple of rolls and shot two more in black and white, all while Sharrock played. He'd just bought the trenchcoat and insisted on wearing it for the shoot; I didn't protest, since I knew that the shiny black leather would catch the highlights beautifully and add more contrast. I was extremely pleased with what I shot that day, but after they ran with Tim's article in HMV, I don't think they were seen again - until now.

I almost never asked anyone for an autograph, but I was a terrible guitar geek at the time, and had him sign the headstock of my own Les Paul Custom copy - probably the only Sonny Sharrock Les Paul in the world, I suppose. Years later, hard on my luck, I was forced to sell the instrument; I often wonder if it's still out there, and its owner knows its unique value.

Sonny Sharrock died of a heart attack in Ossining, NY on May 26, 1994.


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