The onetime Chicago label Okka Disk has just released a fascinating and powerful document of the city’s free-jazz history—from the generally fallow late 80s. Fragments is an LP-only release of an intense duo concert with German reedist Peter Brötzmann and the explosive electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock, recorded at the Elbo Room in December of 1989. Back then many of the best gigs by out-of-town out jazz cats were organized by a nonprofit called Southend Music Works, which during the latter half of the 80s provided an oasis of progressive music at an ever-shifting array of venues: some River West loft spaces, Elbo Room, and even their own dedicated space on Michigan Avenue for a short time. If it weren’t for this organization, things would’ve been a lot drearier in Chicago.
Half a decade later, things had improved dramatically. This particular concert happened near the end of Southend, when they programmed a short series at the Elbo Room—I also remember hearing the String Trio of New York and Iva Bittova there. Brötzmann and Sharrock had been playing together as members of the heavy-hitting free jazz/heavy metal juggernaut Last Exit, and I’m pretty sure this date was the first time Sharrock had played in Chicago in many years—he later did several gigs at Lounge Ax—and the anticipation was palpable. During the early 70s Sharrock had developed a kind of electric-guitar analog for the mind-warping free jazz of Albert Ayler, although his work on a record like Monkey-Pockie-Boo with his wife, Linda, sounded more like escapees from a mental institute let loose in a recording studio than Ayler’s gospelized screech.
I remember this concert began tentatively, but soon picked up loads of steam. Early on Sharrock stuck to more restrained, lyric passages, but prodded by Brotzmann he soon raised the energy level. Although the grinding blues passage on “No 2” is a bit cheesy, other sections find the guitarist summoning roiling blasts that go head-to-head with his partner's fire breathing. During an alternately tender and searing section of solo clarinet playing there’s a brief pause and some laughter; I still remember Sharrock exclaiming, “Damn, Pete!” after a particularly forceful passage, and I’m willing to bet this was it. Malachi Ritscher recorded this performance, and it’s clearly one of his earlier efforts; the sound is clear enough to capture most of the details, but he’s in the midst of the crowd (you can hear a waitress ask a patron if he needs another drink). One odd thing is that Brötzmann, who designed the album art, credits only himself with composing the music, which is strange since these duets were clearly improvised. Sharrock should share the credit. The release comes in a numbered, limited edition of 1,000, and it’s pressed on heavy-duty 180 gram vinyl.