Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sharp, Elliott

Guitarist, composer and reedman Elliott Sharp has played an important role in experimental music by combining blues, jazz, electronica and contemporary classical music into an exclusively modern sound.

Equal parts avant-garde musician and chamber music composer, Sharp's music is regularly performed in jazz clubs and concert halls. Sharp's varied tastes have taken shape in projects such as the blues-based group Terraplane and the free form ensemble Orchestra Carbon.

Elliott Sharp was born on March 1, 1951 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sharp grew up in White Plains, New York, where he spent his childhood studying science and classical piano. Elliott studied the works of composers Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin and began to perform concerts at the age of eight. Elliott soon gave up the piano, citing his lack of desire to continue the strict practice regimen. Elliott soon switched to the clarinet, partly to exercise his lungs due to problems he experienced with asthma.

Sharp’s parents were equally supportive of his science and music endeavors, encouraging the young man to foster his talents in both fields. In high school, Elliott discovered rock and roll and began listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Elliott began to play the guitar at the age of seventeen and constructed his own guitar pedals and effects to help him create different sounds. Still active in science at this time, Elliott was awarded a National Science Foundation grant, but turned it down in order to study music, electronics, and anthropology at Cornell University.

While at Cornell, Sharp took an electronics class with Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer. Elliott attended Cornell from 1969 until 1971 before transferring to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. While at Bard, Sharp studied composition with composers Benjamin Boretz and Elie Yarden and jazz composition and improvisation with trombonist Roswell Rudd. Elliott especially enjoyed studying the work of pianists Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.

Elliott graduated from Bard in 1973 and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Buffalo where he studied composition with Morton Feldman and Lejaran Hiller. Elliott graduated from Buffalo in 1977 with his graduate degree in composition.

1977 also saw the release of Sharp’s first album Hara. The album was an endeavor into experimental jazz and the first record on his label Zoar. Two years later, Elliott released Resonance then moved to New York City in order to participate in the city’s experimental music scene.

Upon moving to New York, Sharp purchased an apartment on East Seventh Street and continued his recording career. Elliott started to contribute to the downtown music scene while performing in a bar band that specialized in Motown covers. Elliott supplemented his income by working as a janitor at the Barbizon Hotel on East 63rd Street.

While making the rounds in the New York scene, Sharp became acquainted with alto saxophonist John Zorn guitarist Marc Ribot saxophonist/actor John Lurie and bassist Bill Laswell. Sharp began to perform at city venues such as the Mudd Club and Tier 3.

In 1983, Elliott formed the politically minded band Orchestra Carbon, originating the name from the scientific concept that all matter can be condensed to carbon. The band’s name also had to deal with Elliott’s awareness to nuclear disarmament politics. The band released its debut album Carbon in 1984 on the Atonal label.

By the early 1990s, Sharp began to turn his attention to blues-based music through numerous projects. Sharp was influenced by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor’s humanistic and modern playing of the blues, and he wished to explore similar ground.

In 1994, Elliott formed the band Terraplane and released their self-titled album on the Homestead label. The album featured bassist David Hofstra and drummer Joseph Trump. Elliott’s take on modern blues playing was met with enthusiasm and acclaim. Guitar Player Magazine stated that his performance was “devoid of posturing and clichés.” The record also featured the work of guitarist Hubert Sumlin who once worked with guitarists Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Sharp began to experiment with drum-n-bass styles under the name Tectonics. The group released Field And Stream and Errata, both in 1995. The following year Elliott released an album of string quartets entitled Sferics and received a commission from the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra.

In 1997, Sharp released ARC, Vol 2: The Seventies (1972-79). The album featured material that Sharp recorded while in college. On the unaccompanied saxophone solo “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?,” Sharp presents a predisposition for microtonal melodies that easily segue between major and minor tonalities. Sharp’s tonal ambiguity evokes the melodic organization of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.

The following year, Sharp teamed up with guitarists Vernon Reid and David Torn to form the band Guitar Oblique. The same year, the group released the album GTR OBLQ. In the late 1990s, Guitar Player Magazine included Sharp in their list of “The Dirty Thirty – Pioneers and Trailblazers.”

In 2000, Terraplane released Blues For Next on Knitting Factory Records, which featured singer Eric Mingus. The following year, Sharp released the album Suspension of Disbelief on Zorn’s Tzadik label. On “J-Words,” Sharp sets up a continuous electronic beat in the back round for him to improvise over. Performing on the saxophone, Sharp alternates between short melodic bursts and long dense phrases. A great quality of Sharp’s performance is his harmonic unpredictability. The lack of a chordal instrument allows him to freely improvise without the confines of chord changes.

Three years later, Sharp was one of the recipients of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award. The foundation gives grants to artists they believe encourage innovation, experimentation and potential in the arts. Sharp has also lent his talents to film scores, scoring director Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s 2003 film “What Sebastian Meant” and director Jonathan Berman’s 2005 documentary “Commune.”

In 2006, Sharp released the album Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! The album features five compositions by Thelonious Monk performed solo on an acoustic guitar. On “Round Midnight,” Sharp completely deconstructs the melody to the point that it’s barely recognizable. Elliott occasionally adds inflections to remind the listener what the song is. His performance is improvisatory in nature with nuances that recall the melodic sophistication of guitarist Sonny Sharrock.

In 2007, Sharp released the album Duo Milano with guitarist Nels Cline. The following year, Elliott was the subject of the documentary Elliott Sharp: Doing The Don’t, a film chronicling his career. Sharp lives in New York City with his wife Janene Higgins and their twin boys.

Select Discography

As Elliott Sharp

Hara (1977)

Resonance (1979)

Nots (1982)

Datacide (1989)

Westwerk (1992)

Interference (1995)

ARC Vol. 2: The Seventies 1972-1979 (1997)

Suspension of Disbelief (2001)

Quadrature (2005)

Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! (2006)

With Nels Cline

Duo Milano (2007)

With Orchestra Carbon

Carbon (1984)

With Vernon Reid & David Torn

GTR OBLQ (1998)

With Terraplane

Terraplane (1994)

Blues for Next (2000)

Yellowman (2002)

Do the Don’t (2003)

Secret Life (2005)

Forgery (2008)

Contributor: Eric Wendell