This legendary New York City-based improvisor and composer believes music can change people’s chemistry. A battery of unconventional guitars, well-chosen effects, and a vocabulary steeped in everything from free-jazz to Fibonacci to old-school blues are the tools of his crusade.
“I love digression,” Elliott Sharp says matter-of-factly, as he sips a piping hot cup of espresso. It’s drawn from a vintage machine in his charmingly bohemian East Village recording studio—which also happens to be home to his Zoar record label, launched back in 1977. We’re sitting in a large room opposite a wall of exposed brick, surrounded by guitars, amplifiers, and a plethora of exotic stringed instruments, all of them painstakingly assembled or acquired over years of sleuthing, searching, and experimenting. The space feels more like a lab or a workshop than a proper studio—a vivid reflection of Sharp’s legendary and inexhaustible curiosity.
“When it comes to creative digression,” he continues, “as an improviser, you have to be able to keep the entire narrative arc somewhere in the background, while at the same time feel free to explore all the places that it sends you. When I’m composing, like if I’m writing an orchestra piece or a string quartet, I want it to have that structural integrity over the entire course of it, but at the same time, I want to feel as if anything could happen—that it’s, in essence, improvisational at any given moment in the music itself.”
There are multiple points of entry into the music of E# (as he’s known to his fans), but it helps to start with a handful of his most recent projects. Studio Venezia, recordings both solo and with drummer Mark Sanders in a studio custom-designed by artist Xavier Veilhan for the 2017 Venice Biennale, is a purely improvisational excursion, played on-the-spot and, for some performances, using unfamiliar instruments like harpsichord, the tuba-like serpent, and a throwback EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer.
“That was like going into a playground,” Sharp says with a laugh. “Xavier had Radiohead’s live recording setup as the basic studio, with this beautiful old API desk and a lot of outboard gear—even some of the same stuff I have, so I really felt at home.” And, of course, there were numerous stringed instruments, including a 16th-century vihuela and a Spanish baroque guitar, which features prominently on the album’s haunting closer, “Pareidolia,” with Sharp bending, tapping, and plucking the strings in repetitive patterns that recall Moroccan trance music. “To keep the improvisational nature, I just picked it up. I didn’t tune it. I think a lot of the different tonal stuff comes from the fact that the strings weren’t in tune.”
By contrast, Sharp’s score for the Jonathan Berman documentary Calling All Earthlings is a bit more traditional, relying on various electric and acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and drum machines to deliver specific moods and melodies. “Dry Gulch,” for example, channels Hawaiian slack-key sounds and a taste of Ry Cooder’s early slide guitar work for the films of Walter Hill, while “Horrors of La” is a haunting two-minute surf anthem worthy of Dick Dale himself.
“That had been in the works probably for about five years,” Sharp recalls. “I’d scored Jonathan’s previous film, Commune, so we have a method. He’d give me very basic guidelines, or keywords, or a feeling. He might reference a band, you know, ‘Make it sound like the Grateful Dead,’ or if the Dead were playing techno or something. And then I would just go. He also gave me a lot of hot buttons that I really resonate with, like psychedelia and North African trance music, so I was trying to get that feel, but in a two-minute track. A few things with tenor guitar or steel guitar were really hitting that pretty closely.”
Then there’s 4am Always, the most recent recording by Sharp’s longtime avant-blues ensemble Terraplane, with bassist David Hofstra, drummer Don McKenzie, and singer Tracie Morris. Released in 2014, the album adds another chapter to the long narrative arc of the core trio, which began back in 1994 (then with drummer Joe Trump) as an outlet for Sharp to dig deep into the music of his blues heroes. Eventually, one of those heroes, Chicago blues stalwart Hubert Sumlin, joined the fold for a string of monumental sessions, including the essential slab Blues for Next (released in 2000) and the ultra-modern Secret Life (2005), and subsequent European tours.
“I almost can’t tell you what it was like, after all these years of listening to Hubert, to finally meet him and then to play with him,” Sharp says. “I mean, so much of what he did defined what modern blues-rock would become. He really wrote the book. When I first heard Howlin’ Wolf—and I got turned on to him through the English blues guys and Paul Butterfield—I’d go into the city and wander around Sam Goody’s record store, and it was the Wolf record on Chess called The Real Folk Blues that hit me first. Then I heard this insane guitar, especially on “Goin’ Down Slow” [from Wolf’s Rocking Chair album], and eventually I found out who [Hubert] was.”
Sharp’s most recent releases cover some of his many facets. Studio Venezia is a solo improvisational outing and his soundtrack for Jonathan Berman’s documentary, Calling All Earthlings, ranges from synth textures to Hawaiian slack-key guitar to surf.
Although Sumlin died in 2011, Sharp still speaks of him as though he might walk in the door at any moment. “He’s been over here a bunch of times—he loves drinking coffee, by the way—and, even watching him play, I can’t tell what he’s doing. Hubert had such a vocal sound because he played with his fingers on his right hand. His left hand was pretty conventional, but I’ve watched his right hand up close. He had an incredibly relaxed right hand. If you ever watch a kora player, it’s the same thing. I saw Alhaji Bai Konté a couple of times, and he was just so relaxed, and yet the incredible clarity of the notes—like Lenny Breau,also.”
Sharp has more in the works with Terraplane, as well as numerous other projects on the burner. (One recent collaboration, Err Guitar, with fellow guitar explorers Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot, seems destined for a follow-up.) And then there’s his just-released memoir IrRational Music. Part tour diary, part manifesto, the book details everything from his brief encounter with Jimi Hendrix (at the famed, and now defunct, Manny’s Music in New York) to his guiding principle for composition: that the Inner Ear is where all music begins. The next step, as Sharp explains it, resides in how you bring that sound into the world. The way we act on this creative impulse, with instruments and processes and learning curves, is an ever-changing feedback loop that we have to constantly strive to break down and refine.
At least, that’s how a lifelong improviser might see it.