Coming up on four decades as composer and performer, New York’s Downtown deacon Elliott Sharp is at a creative peak. Tranzience documents four semi-recent chamber pieces, the earliest being Approaching the Arches of Corti (1997). Scored for four soprano saxophones (the New Thread Quartet of Geoffrey Landman, Kristen McKeon, Erin Rogers and Zach Herchen) and making use of Steve Lacy’s “leg-mute” technique, it sounds at times like a congregation of geese, at others a pipe organ running out of air, and leans nicely into 2008’s Homage Leroy Jenkins. Alongside clarinetist Joshua Rubin and pianist Jenny Lin, violinist Rachel Golub evokes the scrapes and squeals of the legendary dedicatee, whom Sharp counts, along with the larger AACM family, among his early influences. Venus & Jupiter (2012) features the ensemble Either/Or conducted by Richard Carrick and Sharp himself on electroacoustic guitar. Around a pulsing piano, this largely improvised masterwork spins a drone of strings, brass, winds and percussion drawing even more explicitly from the AACM well. The 2013 title composition features the JACK Quartet (Chris Otto, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello), who recently brought their talents to bear on The Boreal (Starkland, 2015). Where that recording employed bows strung with ball-bearing chains, here the musicians use so-called “tube bows” fashioned from aluminum in addition to the standard hair. The music is consistently inventive across its 28-minute duration and inhabits a sound world that can only be described as nanotechnological.
To this solar system, Rub Out The Word may seem like a distant satellite, but its heart shares the same blood. Here Sharp (on guitar and electronics) joins actor Steve Buscemi (of Reservoir Dogs and Fargo fame) to celebrate the writings of Beat Generation guru William S. Burroughs in one of the most delicious spoken word recordings to come out in recent memory. Not only for Burroughs, who managed to make even the most abstract streams of consciousness feel coherent, but also for Buscemi’s adenoidal charm and Sharp’s accompaniment, which, like the words, evokes a viral network that responds to, even as it anticipates, hidden messages in the texts. Said texts are quintessential Burroughs, threading needles of incontrovertible (if sometimes perverse) cynicism through a social cloth he understood in ways few others of his generation did. “The use of cut-up is a key,” narrates Buscemi and one can’t help but feel that he and Sharp embody this very aesthetic in their collaboration. What follows is a string of meditations on writing, obsession, evil, bureaucracy, war, morality, human interactions and the occasional nod to silence thrown in for good measure. This is no naked lunch, but a fully clothed dinner after which dessert is served raw and dripping. And while it may not appeal to straightahead jazz heads, anyone who has enjoyed Sharp’s fantastic voyage (no small task with a discography of over 300 albums) for any length of time is sure to be enthralled.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)