Expressionism holds a major cachet in jazz – use your instrument to tear at your heart or spill your guts and you’re addressing this music of immediacy head on. The squall that results may tilt towards mania, but its vigor often entertains as it storms about. Confrontational art seldom elicits a “meh” response.
That’s what Last Exit was banking on during its short ride through the mid-80s and early-90s jazz/rock firmament. The lacerating cri de coeur of saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson was unmatched in its unabashed roar. Their initial gigs were explosions of collective vehemence born, for better or worse, of an unfettered macho attitude.
After a string of unruly live albums that cemented their rep as creative disrupters, the quartet hit the studio for Iron Path, a more cohesive yet no less volatile session that’s been out of print for decades. Now it’s back and a new generation of listeners, with ears attuned to cacophony and its fallout, might appreciate the near violence of its attack. As it winds through tracks with titles such as “Eye For An Eye,” “Detonator” and “Marked For Death,” this new ESP-Disk reissue of Iron Path waves the flag for well-sculpted bluster.
Brotzmann’s unparalleled caterwaul was often the band’s calling card (after a gig he once noticed he’d broken a rib from blowing his horn too hard), but here the shrieks and growls are wonderfully balanced by Sharrock’s lyrical fuzz and the rhythm section’s insightful design sense. As extreme as the music gets, architecture guides the action; there’s a wise focus to its contours.
As often as not, this coordination arrives in the form of a riff or lick from Sharrock. The late guitarist peals as intently as the saxophonist hollers on “The Black Bat.” Both musicians are experts at shredding, and much of Last Exit’s canon is filled with the kind of blitzkrieg antics that made their shows so vivid. Jackson’s radiant thud (the drummer died in 2013) fuels several of the improvs and generates its own perverse sensuality as Iron Path blasts forward. If you love aggressive drums with a tribal flair, this is your album.
Another must-hear Sharrock outing has also resurfaced. 1991’s Ask The Ages arrives via Laswell’s M.O.D. label (he produced the original issue on Axiom), and though less fierce than Last Exit’s work, it’s more impressive. As on Iron Path, the guitarist is surrounded by a masterful percussionist and horn player. Elvin Jones gooses every aspect of this soaring music, bringing overt waves of swing to the foreground while Pharoah Sanders offers his keening exclamations as a foil for the leader’s ax. Sophisticated skronk isn’t the end game here, as it is with Last Exit; Ask The Ages is all about liftoff, coherence and agility.
The one-two punch of “Little Rock” and “As We Used To Sing” are an apt synopsis. The first is built on a simple blues motif that might be a bar band’s outro tune – if the bar was on Mars. Clarity and muscle make their mark, and Sharrock’s wail lands somewhere between Mahavishnu and Hendrix. The latter is a pinnacle of his frenzied approach, with a sustained squall riding a freebop groove put down by Jones and bassist Charnett Moffett. Pharoah isn’t known for his soprano work, but he answers his mate with a convulsive essay that aptly fits the charged atmosphere. Somehow, regardless of this hysteria, the overall result is articulation.
When the tempo slows down, the intention increases. “Many Mansions” rides a riff that grows more and more ominous with every repetition. Sanders is spurred by the waves of Jones’ polyrhythms and delivers an august explosion that paves the way for Sharrock’s distraught address. Every splash of the drummer’s cymbals nudges the soloists further. Heard in tandem with Iron Path, Ask The Ages strikes a blow the poetic side of aggression. By bringing a soulful essence to a decidedly hardened music, Sharrock reveals his squad goals: make assault approachable.