Elliott Sharp

The Age of Carbon
Intakt CD 188

By Ken Waxman

From 1984 to 1991 guitarist/composer Elliott Sharp stood the conventions of rock, improv and notated music on their heads with his percussion-heavy Carbon band. Using overdubs to add greater density to the match of his double-neck guitar and reeds with at least three percussionists, plus brass players, an electric harpist and sampler exponents, he created a sound that was uniquely audacious. This three-CD set captures Carbon’s history. It also suggests why once Carbon solidified into a beat-driven combo, with a sound close to contemporary rock bands, Sharp turned to composing on a larger scale, intimate improvising and his Terraplane blues band.

Listening to the 49 tracks here which last from 31 seconds to more than 18 minutes, the suspicion remains that the band’s salad days were at its beginnings. Certainly the early arrangements which encompass polyrhythmic positions from each of three drummers – Mark Miller, Charles K. Noyes and David Linton – introduce a refreshing variety to the lengthier tunes. But by the 1990s, when Joseph Trump and Samm Bennett were more often behind the kit, the relentless thumping could easily have been transferred onto any stripped-down pop-rock session of the day without disruption. Other players’ contributions make a difference however. “Singularly” on Disc 3 for instance, manages to be both abstract and authoritative in a sparse set up when drummer Bobby Previte’s paradiddles and thumps intensify Sharp’s power-chording.

The early Carbon was also more daring, as Sharp utilized his reeds almost as frequently as his guitar. Echoing riffs from overdubbed horns mix with strident guitar licks on a tune such as “Iso” for instance, even while the hefty beats from the live drummers separate and unite throughout. What would be guitar heroics elsewhere are also used intelligently by Sharp. Inspired by fractal geometry, “Self-Squared Dragon” finds Sharp’s fuzz tones and reverb extended with banjo-like fills and bass-string buzzes in a stop-time extravaganza enlivened by brays from Jim Staley’s trombone.

Staley and Ken Heer on trombones, tubaist Dave Hofstra and additional percussionists also help define the multi-part “Sili/Contemp/Tation”, recorded live at The Kitchen. As the percussionists bang away in different tempos, Hofstra’s pedal-point blasts provide the continuum, while Sharp’s trebly guitar distortion slowly moves up the scale. The interjection of glottal stops from the brass keeps the percussion backbeat from overwhelming the narrative; so does steady string friction from the guitarist.

With Carbon later on adopting repetitive organ-like lines from a sampler/keyboardist, stylized guitar riffs and seemingly inexhaustible multiple percussion beats, other memorable tracks stay far away from rock-like replication, by introducing novel concepts. For example “Not-Yet-Time”, a score to a dance piece from 1985, uses electronic distortions to mold and color the underlying theme. While the drummers’ shuffles are still dense, they’re lightened by mulched textures from the overdubbed reeds, as well as Sharp’s distinct finger-styled runs. Plus there’s a vague overlay of East Indian-styled textures. With the use of a graphic score and instruction sets, “Jump Cut” from 1990, shows another path the band could have followed. Percussive clip-clops and what sounds like hammering on a thunder sheet are balanced by a sluicing electric bass solo, a wash of keyboard harmonies, and guitar pyrotechnics which push the final theme variant both to higher pitches and to a satisfying conclusion.

The tracks on The Age of Carbon can be split in half. Many are admirable enough to stand up to repeated listening. However a high majority of the others relate so clearly to the big beat obsessed musical ideas of their time that carbon dating wouldn’t be necessary to situate them historically.

Tracks: Disc 1: Geometry; Iso; Helicopters; As Diversity Disappears; Inverse Proportions; Vicious Cycle; Last Laugh; Intervention; CIA Pope; Self-Squared Dragon; Sili/Contemp/Tation; No Prob; Alveoli Disc 2: Turbulence; Squig; Lacunar; Dusts; Not-Yet-Time; Diffractal; Bean; Unks; Quack; Nest of Saws; Point & Shoot Kipple; D-Cipher; Chapter 11; Cenobites; Augury; Inter; Gigabytes Disc 3: Singularity; Raptor; Freeze Frame; X-Talk; Jump Cut; Paper Trail; Good for Business; Wex; Sockets; Morphing; Tox; Contradiction in Terms; My Blood Is Boiling; Ossuary; Big Lie; Chilly Necessity; Highrise; Running on Cafohol

Personnel: Disc 1: Lesli Dalaba: trumpet (4); Jim Staley trombone (10, 11); Ken Heer: trombone, bass (10, 11); Dave Hofstra tuba (10); Elliott Sharp: doubleneck guitarbass, saxophones, clarinets, slab, pantar, vocals; Bobby Previte: drums (10, 11); Jim Mussen: drums (6-2); M. E. Miller drums, percussion (1-5); Charles K. Noyes: drums, percussion, saw (1-5, 10, 11, 13); David Linton: drums, metal, electric talking drum (1-5); Jane Tomkiewicz: slab, pantar, percussion (6-12); Katie O’Looney: slab, snare drum (10, 11) Disc2: Elliott Sharp: doubleneck guitarbass, electric guitar, lapsteel guitar, saxophones, clarinets, sampler, slab; Zeena Parkins electric harp (9-13, 17, 18); Bobby Previte: drums (1, 4, 5, 7); Charles K. Noyes: drums, percussion, saw (2, 3, 6); David Linton: drums, metal (9-15, 17, 18); Samm Bennett: electronic drums, percussion (8-18) Disc 3: Elliott Sharp: doubleneck guitarbass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, saxophones, clarinets, sampler, slab; Zeena Parkins electric harp, slab (2-5, 7-18); David Weinstein: sampler, keyboard (2, 6-18); Marc Sloan: electric bass (2, 6-18); Joseph Trump: drums; Bobby Previte drums (1); David Linton: drums, metal (3, 5); Samm Bennett electronic drums, percussion (3-5)

—For New York City Jazz Record July 2011