The Strange World Of… Linda Sharrock

Ahead of her appearance at Le Guess Who? Stewart Smith guides us through the music of Linda Sharrock, and speaks to her collaborators Mario Rechtern and Margaret Unknown about her return to music following a stroke

Born Linda Chambers in Philadelphia in 1947, Sharrock came to prominence via the New York avant-garde jazz scene of the 1960s. She began working with Pharoah Sanders, through whom she met her future husband, the guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Sonny is rightly recognised as one of the greatest improvising guitarists, a true original whose sound owes as much to Hendrix and the great blues players as it does to jazz maestros like Grant Green and Jim Hall. Sonny died prematurely in 1993, following a purple patch that saw him collaborate with Peter Brötzmann in Last Exit, and deliver his solo masterpiece in 1991’s Ask The Ages.

Although she was integral to Sonny’s classic free jazz albums of the 60s and 70s, Linda has tended to be overshadowed, despite continuing to work throughout the decades. But her remarkable approach to vocal improvisation has few precedents beyond Abbey Lincoln’s screams and hollers on Max Roach’s We Insist! (1960) or Patty Waters’ remarkable albums for ESP-Disk in the mid-60s. Abstracting gospel, folk and blues roots, Sharrock did with the voice what John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders did with the saxophone: pushing beyond their natural range to find ecstatic new forms of expression.

Of course, she brings her own personality and influences to bear, making her one of the most original jazz vocalists since Billie Holliday. Following her divorce from Sonny, she relocated to Vienna in the mid-80s and began working with Wolfgang Puschnig, who later became her second husband. She continued to work with him until the 2000s, all the while pursuing her own projects with a range of collaborators taking in jazz standards, soulful pop, and electronic music. In 2009 she suffered a devastating stroke. But with the help of a new network of collaborators she has found her way back to music. Her show in Glasgow last year was one of the most powerful this writer has ever experienced. Don’t miss her at Le Guess Who? in Utrecht on Sunday November 12.

Sonny Sharrock – Black Woman (Vortex, 1969)

A stone cold classic, Black Woman is an extraordinary piece of energy music that goes way beyond jazz. Recorded in New York, the album teams the Sharrocks with an incredible band that features Milford Graves on drums, Dave Burrell on piano, Norris Jones and Richard Pierce on bass, Ted Daniels on trumpet and Gary Sharrock on bells. The title track opens with Linda humming the melody against Sonny’s guitar, her voice aching with the sensuality and pain of the blues. It’s spooky and gorgeous, with the looming darkness of Jones’ arco bass and Graves’ tom-heavy rumble burnished by sublime gospel tonalities and shaker bells. Sonny carves a melody out of his tremolo picking, contrasting with Linda’s swooping and swaying legato notes. As the intensity builds, she works over phrases, playing with mouth shapes and the position of tones like a great horn player, before letting rip with tonal screams and yelps.

A jaunty calypso melody kicks off ‘Peanut’, with Linda doubling the guitar melody. It’s a joyful sound, but having established the ground, the group then go all out, with each musician taking wild solos. Linda’s is beautiful, beginning with moans and wails from deep inside the diaphragm, before breaking down into shattered grunts and screams. The piece reaches a climax with Sonny violently scrubbing the strings as Linda wails and ululates, pushing her voice as hard as she can, so that every note is an exorcism, a vision of the sublime.

After that firestorm, the traditional folk tune ‘Bialero’ clears the air. Linda sings the melody in a voice we haven’t heard before, a clear toned high alto that combines classical precision with a touch of exotica. She sits out ‘Blind Willie’ – Sonny’s acoustic 12-string tribute to the great bluesman – before returning for the album’s grand finale, ‘Portrait Of Linda In Three Colours, All Black.’ Like ‘Peanut’, there’s an African-Caribbean feel to the introductory theme, with Burrell’s huge piano chords riding Graves’ deep, spacious drumming. Linda and Sonny sing a wordless refrain in unison, and as the guitar kicks in, Graves unleashes an almighty torrent of heavy toms. Far from being brutal barrage, Graves’ playing positively dances, as if he’s the fulcrum of a vast drum circle, playing free across continents and time-zones. Linda introduces a counter melody and is soon joined by Daniels, who starts off with a harmony part, before bursting into rapid fire semi-quaver runs in the face of Sonny’s choppy guitar attack. Linda re-enters with pleading gospel calls, before leaping towards the sun in a series of ecstatic swoops that push past her highest register into screams. She sounds not unlike Albert Ayler, speaking in tongues and summoning the Holy Ghost, while the band becomes a thrumming mass of energy.

Sonny Sharrock – Monkey Pockie Boo (Actuel BYG, 1970)

Struggling to make a living at home, many key figures in the American avant-jazz scene flocked to Paris, where they were able to gig regularly and record for labels such as Actuel BYG. Recorded with the outstanding French rhythm section of Beb Guérin on bass and Jacques Tholot on drums, Monkey Pockie Boo is one of the imprint’s wildest and weirdest releases, largely dispensing with its predecessor’s thematic elements to explore more abstract territory. Taking up the full first side, ’27th Day’ stars off slow and eerie, with Guérin’s arco bass scrawl and Tholot’s spare percussion feeling out the space before Linda enters, singing in unison with Sonny’s theremin-like slide whistle.

Linda inhabits this strange celestial world with long melismatic swoops and deep blues moans, slowly and deliberately pushing the rhythm to raise the intensity. She howls, gasps and whinnies over Sonny’s serrated cubist blues, sounding not unlike the Plastic Ono Band, but stripped of any rock propulsion. Linda momentarily reels it back in with a repeated blues phrase, only for Sonny to dive into a proto no wave solo that sends shards of metal and glass flying out of the speakers, impaling an unfortunate troupe of Hawaiian guitarists.

‘Soon’ is credited to Linda and rightly so. An invocation of freedom and imminence, the track has no no riff or harmony underlying it. It opens with soulful moans from Linda, then a violent irruption of slide guitar from Sonny. As Sonny whips up a cyclone, Linda launches into a series of wails and ululations, spacing it all out with longer tones and possessed cackling. You can really sense her power as an improviser, as she provokes and responds to the other musicians by teasing out a repeated tone for a couple of bars against Sonny’s jagged guitar, before leaping up into higher range. The title track opens with bass harmonics and scraped guitar strings, before a light snare canter sets up a more playful mood. The folk and African influences that were so prominent on Black Woman reappear, with Linda and Sonny singing a melodic refrain in a loose call and response style: from griot to gospel, ancient to future.

Sonny Sharrock And Linda Sharrock – Paradise (Atco, 1975)

Jointly credited to Sonny and Linda (as, arguably, their previous two collaborations should have been) Paradise is a gorgeous anomaly. Produced by Turkish tape composer Ilhan Mimaroglu, its slick 70s soul influences suggest the Sharrocks were aiming for a more commercial sound. But then how commercial can an album full of wordless vocals and unhinged slide guitar be? Its commercial failure perhaps explains Sonny’s later dismissive attitude to the album. In a 1993 interview with WPKN’s Ed Flynn, the guitarist opined that Paradise "should stay a collector’s item, should never be re-released". Maybe he felt they were selling out, but heard today, the album makes a lot more sense. There’s a historical tendency amongst critics and fans who have come to jazz from rock to overlook the music’s connections to black pop. Just look at Ralph Gleason’s late 60s writing for Rolling Stone or the way in which jazz-rock fusion was privileged over jazz-funk. Paradise challenges that by envisioning a form of fusion that’s tuned into r & b radio.

‘Apollo’ channels the glazed soul of Diana Ross and Minnie Riperton, with Linda doubling Sonny’s exquisite guitar figure in sighing, sensuous tones. As the band glides along in a perfumed cloud of shimmering synths, conga and bass, Linda starts to improvise, stretching out the syllables and reaching into the back of the throat for a blissful croak. Then on the turn of the dime the band switch into a fast fusion groove, punctuated with clavinets and wiggy synth solos. Sonny hijacks it all with wobbly slide work and stinging solos that echo Linda’s horn-like phrasing, before leading us back into the dreamy main theme. The choogling funk of ‘Miss Doris’ recalls Yoko Ono’s ‘Mind Train’, and indeed there are similarities between both vocalists’ cackling ululations. If on previous albums Linda had often sought to emulate saxophonists, here she channels Hendrix and Eddie Hazel, stretching and warping long lunar notes with wah-wah mouth effects. On ‘1953 Blue Boogie Children’ she takes that effect further, running her voice through an envelope filter for extra squelch, before making like a freakier Eartha Kitt, all sardonic mewls and coquettish trills. While Sonny sometimes struggles to assimilate his free playing into the funky new sound, Linda thrives, expanding her language with subtle and sensuous inflections.

A less polished take on the Paradise sound can be heard on a 1974 WKCR session with The Savages, which includes a super-hip early version of ‘1953 Blue Boogie Children’. The full set is available as a grey market LP, but you can sample the afore-mentioned track above.

No discussion of Linda Sharrock in the 1970s would be complete without mentioning her fine collaboration with pianist Joe Bonner on the album Angel Eyes (1975). Sharrock appears on ‘Celebration’, singing lyrics (!) before switching to a soulful take on her wordless free style. The piece begins as a reflective ballad, with Sharrock singing ‘It’s a sad game…’ over Bonner’s doleful piano. Sharrock moves from smoky alto to wistful head notes, before Leroy Jenkins’ violin sweeps away the blues and sets up Bonner’s strident McCoy Tyner-esque vamp. The track is a fantastic example of how Sharrock adapted her ecstatic style to a more tonal setting: she uses many of the same effects, but they’re delivered with greater subtlety and control. The results are positively blissful.

The Vienna Years

Sharrock relocated to Vienna in the 1980s. Her return to the avant-garde came with Jazz For Thinkers (Kovarik’s Muzikothek, 1985), recorded with a group of Austrian improvisers that includes Paul Fields, Fritz Novotny and Niko Polymenakos. Something of a lost gem, it’s well worth tracking down, not least to hear how Sharrock improvises in a very different musical context than that of her classic free jazz sides. The music is distinctly European, drawing on contemporary classical music and folk forms, with occasional electronic treatments and woozy tape textures. Many of the characteristic features of Sharrock’s non-verbal language are present – the croaks, the whinnies, the whoops – but they’re delivered with greater subtlety, becoming part of the overall texture.

It would have been interesting to see where that collaboration may have gone, but Sharrock soon fell in with saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig, whom she would later marry. Their long-running collaboration yielded several groups, beginning with the Pat Brothers, with Wolfgang Mitterer on synths and Wolfgang Reisinger on drums, in 1986. As you can hear in the French television clip above, it’s a curious mix, with Sharrock’s free vocals and rapped narratives remaining poised amidst frenetic electro-funk synths and jittery drums. Encouraged by a poetry teacher, Sharrock began writing her own lyrics, a development that saw her taking her voice into new places and growing as a songwriter. In 1988, she appeared alongside the likes of Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Jamaaladeen Tacuma on Puschnig’s all-star album Pieces Of The Dream, performing her own composition ‘A Long Way From Home’. She would go on to guest on several of his albums, including Alpine Aspects (1991) and Mixed Metaphors (1995), for which she also designed the cover art. A curious attempt at hip hop jazz fusion, the latter features Sharrock speak-singing over ?uestlove of The Roots’ tight drum grooves, but it’s let down by dated muso funk arrangements.

Sharrock took a more central role in her next group with Puschnig and pianist Uli Scherer, AM4 (A Monastic Quartet). Their sole album, …And She Answered, was released on ECM in 1989, and it fits in well with that label’s aesthetic, being a sophisticated fusion of contemporary jazz, new age and Far Eastern music. That interest in the tonalities and textures of South East Asian music continued with Red Sun, a collaboration with Tacuma and Kim Duk Soo’s South Korean percussion ensemble Samul Nori. Of their four albums released between 1989 and 1997, 1995’s …And Then Comes The White Tiger on ECM is perhaps the easiest to get hold of, and while their slick world fusion sound is of its time, they’re still worth investigating, not least for Sharrock’s vocals and the expanded rhythm section’s fourth-world funkadelia. Puschnig and Sharrock were also fond of trios, working with Tacuma on 1991’s Three Man Band and French tuba and serpent player Michel Godard on 1997’s Dream Weavers. A 2004 live set by the latter group shows how commanding a jazz vocalist Sharrock had become, with a superb sense of timing and a carefully modulated articulation that balances crisp diction bluesy slurs and moans.

A Portrait Of Linda Solo

Outside of her projects with Puschnig, Sharrock recorded a number of solo albums, beginning with her 1990 Billie Holiday tribute On Holiday, a collaboration with Tacuma. In 1994 Sharrock went to London to record Like A River with trombonist Ashley Slater (of Freakpower, Loose Tubes et al). Its 90s pop-soul sound hasn’t aged particularly well, but the acoustic blues of ‘Red Dog’ has a hint of her work with Sonny. You’ll find some of its tracks on All The Best, a 2003 compilation that’s readily available on Spotify. For 1997’s Listen To The Night she worked with pianist Eric Watson on a set of standards and originals. It’s a long way from free jazz, but the acoustic setting is a fine showcase for Sharrock’s skills as an interpreter of song. She used a similar format for Confessions (Quinton, 2004), working with Stephan Oliva on piano and Chad Tchamitchian on bass. Their spare accompaniment gives Sharrock’s mature voice space to move. ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is one of her finest vocal performances, renewing the song with inventive phrasing and a deep sense of the blues.

Sharrock made occasional appearances as a guest vocalist during the 90s, but special mention must go to her collaboration with Aki Onda. Appearing on the Japanese artist’s 1998 album Beautiful Contradiction, ‘Do You Remember’ is an avant-pop gem, with Sharrock given plenty of space amidst a subtle arrangement for accordion, electric piano and Japanese percussion over a trip hop beat. Her sing-speak narrative style is perfectly suited to Onda’s Tokyo noir, with glimmers of tenderness breaking through the street-smart poise.

Linda Sharrock, Itaru Oki, Mario Rechtern, Eric Zinman, Makoto Sato, Yoram Rosilio – No Is No (Don’t Fuck Around With Your Women)

(Improvising Beings, 2014)


Linda Sharrock; (In) The Abyssity Of The Grounds – Gods

(Golden Lab, 2015)


The Linda Sharrock Network – They Begin to Speak

(Improvising Beings, 2016)

In 2009 Sharrock suffered a major stroke that left her paralysed on one side of the body and unable to speak. Under the care of multi-instrumentalist Mario Rechtern she gradually found her way back to music, working with her international Network and (In) The Abyssity Of The Grounds, a group centred around the core trio of Sharrock, Rechtern and guitarist Max Bogner, aka Margaret Unknown. Sharrock’s post-stroke range may be limited, but she has found a deeply expressive new language, based around pitched guttural moans and air-raid siren wails. Hearing her sing can be an intensely moving, even harrowing experience: she’s lost none of her ability to inhabit the centre of the music, remaining utterly focussed while chaos breaks out around her. Picking up where Monkey Pockie Boo left off, Abyssity forge a frenetic energy music based around Rechtern’s raw sax and Margaret Unknown’s psychedelic no-wave guitar. Their monumental triple LP, Gods is currently out of print, but the group tours regularly. Their February 2016 show in Glasgow was one of the most powerful this writer has ever experienced. The ever-expanding Linda Sharrock Network also has Rechtern at its core, but takes in musicians from Switzerland, France, Japan, Italy and the UK. The Network’s double-CD set, They Begin To Speak also comes highly recommended. The all-acoustic Paris sessions are less abrasive than the Abyssity recordings, but they possess a similarly manic energy, with Claude Parle wrenching wild sounds from his accordion over the flutter and din of the band. Zinman’s piano sweeps offer an almost graceful counterpoint to Sharrock’s vocals, while Oki’s trumpet and Rechtern’s double-reeds swarm restlessly. While the Sheffield performance is by no means lacking in incident, the relative amount of space allows Sharrock’s remarkable vocals to really hit home, not least where she tunes into Rechtern’s lowing saxophone, before pushing into realms that are both harrowing and ecstatic.

For this feature, I asked Rechtern and Bogner for their reflections on working with Sharrock. As Rechtern recalls, the breakthrough came during a visit from Henry Grimes, the legendary bassist and violinist who played with Charles Mingus and Albert Ayler before disappearing from the scene for decades, until his rediscovery in 2002. "Margaret and Henry Grimes came to Vienna for a concert and here another intuition and musical miracle took place: Henry played his violin in Linda’s apartment and after a while Linda started to sing, just sounds, almost whispering long notes into the weavings of these ripped and loose threads, dropping and hanging single threaded or as fragmented weavings out of Henry’s violin."

This provided the impetus for further musical explorations. "I took my ‘violin’ [a stringed gourd instrument] and we went recording with another singer from Italy and here the new music of Linda started picking up the threads from then (Black women), built beyond any notes, just on empathy, shared feeling and shared memory to expression: a rough but heart-breaking form of blues beyond any musical form. Pure blues and pure expression of pain, desire, and simple rough and soft beauty."

Rechtern writes: "Her trauma, limbo and despair growing to form by connecting, reflecting, intertwining with ours to observe planets hanging in their orbit, held in balance between flight-movement and gravitation."

Rechtern’s automatic writing can seem inscrutable, but by following his metaphors of celestial bodies and gravitational forces, one can gain a sense of how the Linda Sharrock Network and The Abyssity Of The Grounds are conceived. My reading of it is that both projects confront the darkness, but in different ways. "The orbits of the other musicians, all challenged by these black holes of society and their gravitations, to interfere and suck," he continues. "When all things appear in the shadows or mirrors of their negativity we discover and migrate through these ‘abyssities of the grounds’ and their impacts on gravitation waves, while the Linda Sharrock network claims ‘no is no’ – do not fuck around with your ‘orbits’. When we spin, migrate and discover the balance  between  spin-flight and gravitation… living – this intuition, eternal memory and impact is so strong inside of any of us."

Bogner offers a slightly clearer picture. He had already been playing with Rechtern and drummer Didi Kern when he was asked to join a session with Linda. "Everything changed," he recalls. "The visible frames of expression, our tongues and touching points we had before were shattered into raw pieces and we got plunged into a black sea with no vision nor direction minimised or in this actual sense raised to archaic instincts and just the most basic connectivity a human soul could ever feel. It was a complete and absolute explosion and defragmentation to our most inner parts. After we came back to the surface and from the cellar or Orpheus’ underworld I sat down and didn’t know what had happened or how I should feel about it. All my wishes of moving towards a more abstract realm in music were fulfilled in this hour and it was too much to take or rationalise but I was hooked.

"From this point the core trio of Linda, Mario and me went on playing with an ever changing group of likeminded souls around us, people who can feel with us on this level of interconnection which basically leaves the terms of music behind and enters the ones of caring and human interaction, love, sacrifice, suffering, empathy, coining the term of ’empathoharmonics’ since it is not the music we play or our instruments or the structures but it is the (de-)/harmonising of our innermost and darkest motion, the shadow of our negativity, the reverberation of our souls. Every concert of (In) The Abyssity Of The Grounds is like Dantes way through the circles of hell, further through purgatory and up into the heavens, leaving behind conscious thought or reason and being dissolved into the collectivity of the group and the audience. It is a complete trance that touches every possible aspect of our selves, a Big Bang, a scream translating around the world and arbitrarily spreading out until it comes back at us with full force, in the end touching the underlying forces moving everything on this planet – humanity as emotional interconnected dynamic network as one being – not discriminating between language, race, class, intellect or age but being universal."

Linda Sharrock plays Le Guess Who? in Utrecht, NL – a festival which runs from November 9 – 12

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today