Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Confessions: The Ballade of Linda Sharrock

By Eric Zinman.
First published in FEMEFICATIO UK in 2012.
(originally edited by Kamaria Muntu and Malkia Charlee Martin)

Linda Sharrock is sitting today in a wheelchair after having suffered a stroke. She is disabled from motion and words literally, without action, flabbergasted. She, however, is still on a mission. An eloquent, artistic, and authentic musician who began her career in partnership with jazz guitarist and husband Sonny Sharrock

Her impressive vocals on the album Black Woman produced by Herbie Mann on Atlantic Sub Vortex and released in 1969, heralded the arrival of a cutting edge talent to be reckoned with. She now finds herself embroiled in a complex domestic drama. 

In a fight for her own autonomy, property and the financial wherewithal to heal properly. But even in this tragic complexity which must be sorted if she is to survive. She is yet determined to work, to tour – to reclaim the artist in herself and her place in the world of avant-garde jazz.

Linda and Sonny Sharrock, 1970s
Linda and Sonny Sharrock, 1970s

“America always made it a point to keep the creative arts low down” was a 
phrase I heard during the 60’s ... But I never had a precise idea what the 
expression low down might actually represent until I learned more about it – 
witnessing closely the infamous fate of Linda Sharrock and her literal human, 
physical and artistic destruction ... Now I know.” (Mario Rechtern, musician 
and Linda’s caregiver).

Austrian free jazz musician Mario Rechtern invited me to stay as his guest in Vienna and we made sessions. Nobody knew who I was, which carries a certain joy and mystery. Mario had organized several sessions at the Porgy & Bess for us and I got to know and play with some very fine musicians. Mario told me about his friend Linda. I had heard that she had been in Vienna since the 70’s but that was all I knew. Previously I’d heard her recording called Black Woman, released on Atlantic Sub Verve, with Sonny Sharrock and Milford Graves while in college. 

I recalled the cathartic sound, the way Linda made these screaming utterances, then whispers with her voice that carried through the air. It had the timbre of a saxophone with these incisive emotionally jarring attacks of urgency. ... There was a gospel element. You had this feeling that you could hear every part of her throat, chest and nose as the words moved through her body in syllables.

She gave the music a sensual, intimate quality that is rare with singers; especially in Pop and even in jazz where a pristine sensuality is often preferred over an expressive one.

On the recording Music for Free Thinkers, Fritz Novotny and Linda sing in unison with horns, a large ensemble and the Reform Art Unit. Immediately you’re struck with the control of her voice; but you’re simply floored by the sheer power of her sound. However this recording doesn't identify her musical personality. 

This was accomplished in the 2005 album Confessions (Quinton / Soul Food), which I’ll talk about later. Nevertheless, since the 70’s, Linda Sharrock has been among the most famous and popular acts from the avant garde in Vienna. A frequent performer at the Porgy & Bess, she also toured regularly as a featured jazz singer in numerous festivals throughout Europe.

Mario brought me to a café near Linda’s apartment. He told me to wait in a Cafe Journal across the street and left to go get Linda. I waited in anticipation. When he returned with her, I remember there was this vibe that she was afraid to be seen or met – not only from what Mario told me, but also by the way she entered the room.

Linda Sharrock, April 2013. Though recovering from a stroke that leaves Linda without control of her vocal chords, she still tours. Photo: Mario Rechtern
Linda Sharrock, April 2013. Photo: Mario Rechtern,

She spoke very little, and the way she was dressed and held herself close... you knew 
everything right away. Though recovering from a stroke that leaves Linda without 
control of her vocal chords, she still tours. 

There was this elegance and tenderness that she offered me in her manner, but I was confused as to why she appeared so fragile. (The album Confessions tells it all in plain language. When you hear this record you know.) We went out to the country, Mario, Linda and I. Linda had had some scarring on her face, and no one told me the cause... Singers, just like actors, perceive they need perfection in their visual appeal, and so she did not permit photographs – not at first. 

As I got to know her, I think she began to trust me, at least a bit more. We went to several different café’s day and night and it was some of the most fun I had in Vienna – in life. We talked a little, but mostly we laughed about so many things. I had heard that she had toured for years with her husband Wolfgang Puschnig, who is quite famous in Europe and always seems to garner support for his marriage of Austrian folk music and jazz in the press.

For Linda, to be the authentic survivor of a lost era of the avant-garde is at once a 
blessing and a curse. People want her for what they can use.

While Linda Sharrock did many workshops at many festivals,she was never offered any secure academic position. That was the privilege of her husband Professor Puschnig who brought Linda around Europe. They seemed by all descriptions and presentations to be a happy couple. Yet Linda seemed to be in an endless state of despair, even though she was calm when I would speak with her. She was drinking a lot which carries a certain amount of joy in Europe – but there seemed no enthusiasm for this drinking. It seemed a reaction to a void that could only be described as loss.

Linda Sharrock, 2004. Photo: Jeanne Davy
Linda Sharrock, 2004. Photo: Jeanne Davy

“Linda Sharrock is not a Christmas alternative to Diana Krall and Norah Jones, which is already clear in the unaccompanied introduction to the opening number Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. Her voice is covered with a film of anger and pain, her tone of voice such an individual interpretation of the blues, that from the first moment on is as distinctively unmistakable as the one of Richie Havens, who recorded at Woodstock a since then definitive version of that song. 

"After she got her first successful results as a singer next to her husband Sonny, she lately drew attention onto her work as the musical partner of Wolfgang Puschnig.[...] Sharrock dares, risks – admits herself getting even uncomfortable sometimes, without however ever breaking contacts with tradition.[...] Sharrock makes the vocal hypes of recent years look quite old.” Eric Mandel

Eric Mandel’s opening statements concisely speak to the subject of an artist’s life, what many do not wish to hear – how the real is hard to take. That is the legacy we continue to catch up to...Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Albert Ayler, Frank Wright. Even Coltrane’s “OM” or “Expression” remain outside of popular critiques of jazz, favoring a cooler, gentler, more celebrity oriented estimation of beauty and what is considered classic.

In Confessions the full extent of Linda Sharrock’s vocalizations are considerable – from wide open to a closed mouth humming. Whispers, palpitating and scratching throat screams and a variety of original sounds combine with clear articulation. Vibrato when it suits her design and a powerful projection that is not all that common with singers who utilize such enormous technique. But all this is in total contrast to the alert impressionist background of pianist Stephan Oliva, and bassist Claude Tchamitchian who throughout this collaboration play with the voice in duets, unisons, scalar colorings.

Aside from Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, the following compositions and lyric poetry are definitely Linda Sharrock’s. Goodbye plays with pausing broken non legato phrases culminating in a whisper.

Unlike many singers who execute tones and phrases, there is so much in each sound she makes and how it’s shaped – from it’s attack to it’s decay, that in all it’s fragility one feels and hears an enormous strength.

I appreciate Linda for not avoiding such low registers as they bring poignancy to the 

These low registers are demonstrated aptly where the piano is often playing above Linda’s voice. In You Didn’t Know Me you hear the voice moving closer to the bass. Sable reminds me of a romantic (almost operatic) recitative with it’s monochromatic tone and pulse. The bass tunes into the urgency of certain statements to find it’s place as stated in the lyrics “able to find a place for me”.

Again whispers appear prophetic, repeating and solemn. The sequence fits the design. The piano repeats while the bass again sings with the voice.

When you arrive at Prayer you find again the haunting quality of her music, particularly in 
the wavering high pitched voice which begins in unison with the piano. 

The difficulty of projecting a vibrato quickly on pitch is something only a singer may appreciate, something more easily accomplished on a long tone... “Why do we always search and wonder why, perhaps to look within”

Clair Obscur sounds like a funeral and cleverly opens into a ballade moving deceptively 
between major and minor. “What a way to find our love was just a lie” In Suddenly the piano seems to mimic the ticking of a clock. Whispers enter syllabically with demonstrative pauses and statements as the bass solos and is followed by the piano. Then, suddenly strongly articulated: -

“There was never any if or when”.

Confessions is a collaboration, emphatic and artistic in all of it’s details worked out between the musicians. And in all it’s sadness, you feel a warm embrace ...... beckoning you to move with it.

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