Elliott Sharp / Carbon
Atavistic / ALP50 CD
Elliott Sharp / guitars, samples, saxophones, computer, Zeena Parkins / electric harp, Marc Sloan / bass, Joseph Trump / drums, David Weinstein / sampler.
Elliott Sharp, “composer in combat boots” and darling of the New York avant garde, is among the two or three most innovative guitarists on the planet. Employing very little standard technique, he has forged a musical language completely distinct from Derek Bailey’s intimate (and now ubiquitous) scratches and squeaks. If Bailey was influenced by Webern’s extreme delicacy, Sharp is a disciple of Xenakis, mobilising huge blocks of sound in the pursuit of something abstract and impersonal. Fellow travellers will find themselves listening to this or any other of his releases, ear pressed to the speaker, wondering what he’s doing.
Although an improvisor, he is also a modernist, and embraces effects pedals (distortion and delay being his favoured condiments), samplers and sequencing. Often, as on this album, his guitar becomes a sound-source to be manipulated and turned into something far removed from the rock idiom. Likewise, he is just as happy to prop his guitar against a wall and play squalling sax (he’s not a “proper” sax player, more a have-a-goer like James Chance) or program his loping, rolling computer rhythms. These latter seem to be connected via ISDN straight into Trump’s brain, so close is the interaction between them.
Because of his tencency to bury the traditional tone of the guitar under a welter of electronic treatments, and because his extended techniques do not make for a traditional tone anyway, it is rather hard to pick out Sharp’s contributions from Zeena Parkins’ distorted harp. Parkins is another improvisor who is just as happy in a wholly-composed environment, and she makes a fine contribution here, mostly blending with Sharp but occasionally stepping forward with ideas of her own. She has recorded with him before, and played with him often: the untitled eighth track finds them duetting in a tempest of suffering amplifiers, and is a revelation. Pulling down the full quintet’s brick wall reveals the true extent of their simbiosis, as close as Jim Hall’s with Bill Evans.
Sharp’s musical tendencies can veer wildly between genres, taking in industrial, jazz, prog rock, techno, modernism and so on in half an album, and Carbon were formed in part to give a focus to his rock/classical fusion. Nevertheless, it’s unusual to hear something as satisfyingly disciplined as Interference. All seven tracks are strong ensemble performances, with few solos as such, and much of the music is textural and riff-based. Musos hankering for Sharp’s geometrical-freakout solo style might be disappointed, although whether many bedroom strummers seek out his albums the way they seek out stuff by John McLaughlin is another question.
A minimalist he may be on paper, but he can never resist packing too much variation into every bar for boredom to get a look in — his driving, ametrical funk is always veering off in odd directions or encountering peculiar objects in its path. The exception here is “Jungle Freeze”, a skittering collage of machine noises and harp abuse supporting an anti-solo on sax (alien wailing sounds; no tunes) and only briefly breaking into more familiar, percussive territory. Sharp’s sax playing, especially here, has something of the charm of Ornette’s trumpet about it.
This is not an album which is going to surprise any existing Carbon converts. Still, it would be an injustice to claim that this was just more of the same from the outfit even if new ground is not being broken with such obvious abandon as at its inception. In Parkins, Sharp has found a genuine kindred spirit. Great pairings like this are rare and precious in this kind of music, which is so often played in ad hoc combinations in which little of depth is really shared. This is the most concentrated of Carbon’s albums, their most successfully-integrated lineup playing some powerful music, and comes unconditionally recommended. Richard Cochrane