Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane – Forgery
Elliott Sharp – Octal: Book One (CFG002)
Looking up a definition of polymath in a dictionary should produce a picture of Elliott Sharp. For many years the New York-based guitarist and reedist has been so involved in myriad activities that it’s impossible to classify him. He’s someone whose work encompasses both notated and improvised music, who has composed for large ensembles and small bands, and been involved with electro-acoustic and so-called serious music, plus variants of jazz and rock-blues.
Each of these notable CDs shows off a single facet of Sharp’s musical persona. Others such as his duets with turntablist Christian Marclay or violist Charlotte Hug are more involved with Free Music. Forgery is a blues-rock album, pure, but not simple. Featuring the guitarist’s band Terraplane, it yokes standard blues-rock progressions played by trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxophonist Alex Harding, bassist/tubaist David Hofstra, Sharp and drummer Tony Lewis, to post-modern and socially progressive lyrics sung mostly by Eric Mingus and on one track by Tracie Morris. All in all, it’s a CD you can tap your foot to while following the social commentary embedded in the song lyrics..
In contrast, Octal is solo Sharp wringing timbral variations created by using his Koll eight-string electro-acoustic guitar-bass. Custom-made, this arch-top, hollow-bodied electric guitar with two extra bass strings is rigged up with piezo pick-ups and other add-ons, and is miked so that every sound is heard.
Possessed of a gravelly voice tailor-made for the blues, Mingus’ vocal range on Forgery encompasses B. B. King-like grit and a Howlin’ Wolf-styled falsetto. Along the way, Mingus, who is also a poet, brings proper gravitas to the lyrics, though printing them in the booklet notes would have added to comprehension. All around him the baritone sax of Harding, who has been Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the tuba of Dave Hoftra, who have played with William Parker’s large bands, provide suitable R&B vamps. In blue parlance the harmonica is known as the “Mississippi trumpet”. Here, however, Fowlkes, who has also worked with Bobby Previtte among many others, has such a command of his trombone that he outputs both the gutbucket slurs of a brass instrument and the reedy wistfulness of the harmonica.
Adding crunching fuzz-tone, ringing chords and echoing frails, Sharp shoehorns post-Hendrixian knob-twisting into the sort of guitar-slinging that has characterized this sort of blues-rock since the early days of Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton. At points, however sitar-like resonations or punk-metal riffs are used as contrast. Meantime Lewis lays on heavy backbeats or shuffles as needed.
Interesting enough, Morris’ one outing, “Katrina Blues/How The Crescent City Got Bleached” frames its broadsides with the context of psychedelic blues, rather like the backing Marvin Gaye had on his later records. Weaving around her voice, sometimes double-tracked to create a call-and-response effect, Sharp pulses like guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin, Lewis channels Richard “Pistol” Allen and Hofstra’s electric bass recalls James Jamerson. Settling into the groove, Harding and Fowlkes could be any number of Motown stalwarts.
Not surprisingly for a group of mostly jazz improvisers playing roots music, the all-instrumental tracks are even more sophisticated. “Badlands”, for instance not only features snapping, penetrating steel-guitar fills from Sharp, but also a honking, smoking solo from Harding that seems to be two parts Leo Parker and one part Maceo Parker.
Even better is “Haditha”, in which the guitarist’s triggered pulsations contrapuntally expand and contract as he plays. Including some diatonic recapitulation, Sharps manages to reference South Asian scales and blues lines, constructing string inventiveness within the framework of foot-tapping blues-rock.
Subtract the other musicians and augment the number of technical gizmos brought to the session, including plug-ins and ProTools, and you get Octal. However it’s a tribute to Sharp’s dexterity and ingenuity that a soupçon of blues tonality is added to the sonic mash-up here.
With the piezos allowing him to construct various rhythm and lead lines, power chording can be matched with tough rasgueado as often as legato and dissonant lines can be kept separate from one another. One minute it appears as if Sharp is playing bottleneck guitar with a bow, in another, droning friction gives way to percussive hand-tapping and nearly endless string snaps and tremolo patterns.
He can be folksy, as on “Through the Wormhole”, when Sharp takes on the guitar roles of both Doc and Merle Watson – that is until slashing pulses in double time turn the track urban, if still melodic. On the other hand “Strange Attractor”, wallows in its vibrating sul ponticello pulses, as droning fuzz-tone distortion finally subsumes fiddle-like bow strops and stops, muting fuzzy oscillated waveforms to such an extent that you can hear the fingers fretting as they slide up and down the guitar neck.
As well, “On the Brane” mixes downwards sliding delay and arpeggiated runs with low-frequency reverberations and echoing pick guard scrapes. Sounding as if a fretless guitar is in use, two-handed tapping and slurred fingering mesh to such an extent that three timbres seem to be created from one note. Eventually as the moderato pulsations become more obvious, steady and deliberate strums retard the progression even further so that every chromatic run is isolated.
Forgery and Octal are merely two of Sharp’s many roles, but they’re ones worth investigating if you’re a veteran Sharp fan, or one experiencing his talents for the first time.