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Elliott Sharp: Music in the Key of E-sharp

Elliot Sharp

One of the godfathers of the Downtown New York music scene, guitarist-composer Elliott Sharp has been conceiving experimental works for a variety of small and large ensembles over the past 30 years. His output during that time has been prolific. Since moving to New York in 1979, Sharp has performed frequently at cutting-edge clubs like Tonic, Roulette, Location One and the Knitting Factory while also premiering commissioned works at prestigious venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at major concert halls throughout Europe. From dense duets with drummer Samm Bennett and free-improv harpist Zeena Parkins to severe, postpunk playing with his atonal trio Bootstrappers or his rock-tinged power trio Raw Meat to more heady, algorithmically structured pieces for his sprawling Orchestra Carbon, Sharp has maintained a chameleonlike presence on the New York underground. And in spite of being a first-time father at age 56 (with 18-month-old twins), he remains as restlessly creative as ever, continuing to churn out provocative new projects with remarkable regularity.

“All of these different projects come out of what I do when I’m not changing diapers,” he laughs. “I could tour all the time if I wanted to. In fact, I used to tour seven months out of the year. But with the birth of the babies I’m more interested in staying home more because they’re great to hang out with. So you find different solutions.”

One solution has been to record solo guitar projects in the intimacy of his Studio zOaR, formerly his primary residence in the East Village for more than 20 years. On the highly experimental Quadrature (zOaR), Sharp triggers an avalanche of eerie E-bow moans, ringing overtones, textural string-scrapings and percussive finger-tapped torrents on the fretboard of his modified Godin Duet Multiac acoustic guitar and also on a 27-inch scale Turner Renaissance baritone electro-acoustic guitar.

On his other recent solo project, Elliot Sharp Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk (Clean Feed), the iconoclastic guitarist takes great liberties with Monk fare, extrapolating on familiar themes with an arsenal of extended techniques and unconventional effects on his Django-esque Declare Grande Bouche acoustic guitar. While he turns in fairly faithful renditions of “Misterioso” and “Bemsha Swing,” he radically reinvents “Epistrophy” with frantic two-handed tapping and incorporates false harmonics and harsh slide guitar on “Well You Needn’t.” His stirring interpretation of “‘Round Midnight” makes dramatic use of space and ringing harmonics along with some eerie E-bow effects on that familiar haunting melody.

Sharp’s third recent release, Secret Life (Intuition), is a raucous roadhouse throwdown recorded at nearby Loho Studio with his horn-driven blues band Terraplane, featuring baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, bassist David Hofstra and drummer Lance Carter. For Sharp, the heady conceptualist and former science nerd, Terraplane is a vehicle for unleashing raw, cathartic blues abandon on a solid-body mutt guitar (Fender neck, Fernandes body) while also investigating Deltafied expressions on a National Steel Tricone guitar.

Eric Mingus (son of Charles) summons up some menacing Howlin’ Wolf-ish vocals on a few deep blue numbers, including his stirring Delta blues duet with Sharp on “Prime Crime.” Special guest guitarist Hubert Sumlin, a longtime sideman for Howlin’ Wolf during his classic Chess Records years, appears on two tracks, engaging in some bluesy dialogues with Sharp on “Take My Leave” and “They Say We Is.”

“Hubert was one of my great heroes as a kid, even before I knew his name,” says Sharp. “I’d get those Howlin’ Wolf records and they didn’t have any of the sidemen listed and I’d think, ‘Man, who is that?’ His solo on ‘Goin’ Down Slow’, in particular, has got to be one of the nastiest, weirdest, wildest solos of all time. I never dreamed that Hubert would become a friend or that we’d play together, share a stage together. It’s really beyond a dream.”

Elsewhere on Secret Life, Sharp plays unaccompanied Godin acoustic guitar with E-bow on the starkly haunting “Highway Null” then unleashes some slashing slide work on a 1958 Fender Stringmaster eight-string console steel guitar on “Clandestiny.” On the dirge-like “Blue State,” Elliott reveals a huge debt to Jimi Hendrix, while on the cacophonous “Crackertown Two-Step,” he breaks out some sick slide licks on an old Mosrite Califo=rnian guitar. “Edifice Wrecked” has the guitarist doubling on his secondary ax, tenor saxophone.

Sharp is already preparing material for the next Terraplane release, which he says will be more explicitly political and contains one piece sung by Tracie Morris entitled “Katrina Blues.” Other recent undertakings include an orchestra piece for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, a soundtrack for a science fiction film by director Toni Dove called “Spectropia,” which features former Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry on vocals, and a musical theater piece, “Binibon,” which Sharp composed and directed with text by sci-fi author Jack Womack. “For me, all the projects feed each other,” says the ubiquitous East Village icon.

Originally Published