Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane – Sky Road Songs – Yellowbird/Enja

Elliott Sharp keeps one blues foot in the past and one in the future.

Published on October 14, 2012

Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane – Sky Road Songs – Yellowbird/Enja

Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane – Sky Road Songs – Yellowbird/Enja yeb-7724-2, 52:32 ****:

(Elliott Sharp – electric guitar, electronics, mandocello (tracks 1, 9, 13), handclaps (track 1), alto saxophone (tracks 2, 7-8), resonator guitar (track 3), slide guitar (tracks 5-6, 10, 14), overtone bass (track 5), bass clarinet (tracks 7-8), lap steel guitar (track 8), mandolin (track 9), bass drum (track 9), tambouronics (track 10), junglize (track 10), throat singing (track 13); Joe Mardin – producer, vox harmonica (track 1), handclaps (track 1), shaker (tracks 3, 8), sonic distillation (track 4), lead vocals (track 5), backing vocals (tracks 5, 7, 12), drums (track 5), bass (track 5), chank guitar (track 5), electric piano (track 6), vibraphone (track 7), clarinet arrangement (track 7), vibraslap (track 8), arrangement (tracks 10-11), vocal processing (track 10), junglize (track 10), tarang (track 11), plastic bag percussion (track 11); Tracie Morris – vocals (tracks 2, 7, 10-11), backing vocals (tracks 5, 14); Curtis Fowlkes – trombone (tracks 2-3, 5, 7, 9, 11); Alex Harding – baritone saxophone (tracks 2-3, 5, 7, 11); David Hofstra – electric bass (tracks 2-4, 6-8, 10-11, 14), acoustic bass (track 12); Eric Mingus – vocals (tracks 3-4, 6, 9, 12, 14), backing vocals (tracks 5, 14); Don McKenzie – drums (track 3-4, 6-8, 10-12, 14); Hubert Sumlin – electric guitar (track 6))

Guitarist Elliott Sharp is not the first person a listener might consider of when it comes to contemporary blues. Sharp is best known for his extensive involvement with New York City’s downtown avant-garde/experimental scene. Since the disco era, Sharp has worked with or been associated with John Zorn, Bobby Previte, Wayne Horvitz, and other forward-thinking artists. He has issued hundreds of albums which range from skronk to free jazz, and from efforts influenced by complex mathematical formulae to contemporary classical movements. But the blues has been and continues to be important as well. Sharp formed his ongoing, periodic blues project, Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane, in 1991: the group delivered its debut in 1994. Sky Road Songs is the ensemble’s seventh release and maintains Sharp’s vision of what the blues can be. “Blues has always used the materials that were at hand. It’s always been contemporary music,” Sharp explains. “It’s a feeling. You can’t think of it as a style. That’s what’s happened a lot in modern music: the blues is a feeling, and it exists cross-culturally. It always has existed, and it always will. It’s part of being human.”

Like its predecessors, the 14-track, 52-minute Sky Road Songs shifts from numbers with lyrics about topically current items such as the financial failure to instrumentals which merge Sharp’s free-form approach with recognizably blues-dowsed music. Along for the Delta-drenched journey are frequent Terraplane colleagues such as bassist/vocalist Eric Mingus (who sings on six cuts); trombonist Curtis Fowlkes (who co-founded the Jazz Passengers, and has been a member of the Lounge Lizards, Bill Frisell’s quartet and the Kansas City All-Stars); spoken word artist/performance poet Tracie Morris (who takes lead on four pieces); producer Joe Mardin (Arif Mardin’s  son), who also contributes his multi-instrument skills; and several more. Legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime bandmate and Sharp’s friend since the early 1980s) also lends his six-string talents to “This House Is for Sale,” in what turned out to be his final recording.

After a brief instrumental introduction, Sky Road Songs gets going with the declamatory “Endless Path,” Morris’ groove-flecked diatribe, where she sing/speaks about her life, including what she misses when she is far from home, and the phony characters she has met while on her weary excursions. Sharp’s stimulating guitar solo is the highlight here. Morris has choicer, intriguing details during the cinematic “Fade to Noir,” which has a slightly askew arrangement underscored by horns (sax, trombone and clarinet) and vibes. The reminder: always look over your shoulder, because “someone is closer, closer, closer, someone’s near.” Morris portrays the bad girl on the forcefully treated “I Blame You,” which has copious amounts of digital effects. Rap and soul-swayed vocals infuse Morris’ last number, the invective-enlaced “The Common Extreme,” which is instrumentally enunciated by an erratic arrangement, where horns and percussion flicker amid a processed framework.

Mingus’ contributions are more effective. He sounds convincingly commanding during “Down on the Block,” which combines country and urban blues and evokes Captain Beefheart’s most blues-derived material (think Safe As Milk, with Ry Cooder). There is a jazzy tint on “Dangerous Lands,” a generally straightforward electric blues outlet for Sharps’ conventional lyrics about surviving during desperate days. Mingus’ standout, though, is the mortgage-meltdown track “This House Is for Sale,” an album apex which features Sumlin’s sizzling guitar. The interplay between Sumlin’s acerbic guitar and Sharp’s slicing slide guitar is among the best blues which has come out this past year. Mingus also is excellent on the acoustic, woman-chasing “Off My Mind,” where trombone, mandocello and mandolin recreate Mississippi-styled rural blues with noteworthy directness. Mingus shows a bit of his jazz roots (he’s Charles Mingus’ son) on the title track, a melancholy rumination on Mingus’ inability to sleep after too much travel time and too many circling thoughts.

Producer Mardin is integral to Sky Road Songs, not only as arranger and for his behind-the-boards expertise, but also as musician (he adds drums, bass, guitar, vibes, electric piano and more). He generates conclusive proof he’s a solid blues belter on the record’s most rocking tune, the continuing saga of the “Banking Blues,” where Mardin observes that for far too many folks, relief is a long, hard route with no apparent yellow brick road in the distance. As a bonus, Sharp appends Sky Road Songs with a different translation of the same song, with Mingus on lead vocals. This rendition is earthier (Mingus’ barbed-wire voice in particular has a physical prominence) and is a superior showcase for Sharp’s slide-guitar sculpting. Elliot Sharp’s goal with his abiding Terraplane projects is to “keep one foot in the past and one foot in the future.” With Sky Road Songs, Sharp proves his maxim: the blues is still alive and well and can look backward and forward.

TrackList: Outward; Endless Path; Down on the Block; Dangerous Lands; Banking Blues; This House Is for Sale; Fade to Noir; Off the Hook; Off My Mind; I Blame You; The Common Extreme; Sky Road Song; Inward; (Still Got the) Banking Blues.

—Doug Simpson




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