Review: Elliott Sharp's Foliage at the Vortex

Elliott Sharp, Vortex,April 2014
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Elliott Sharp's Foliage
(Vortex, 4 April 2014, night one of 2-night residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Leading light of New York's downtown music milieu, Elliott Sharp, covered a host of bases in two intense sets at the Vortex, in a keenly anticipated visit to London after appearing at the Frontiers Festival in Birmingham.

In his virtuosic and dramatic opening solo guitar piece, Phosphenes, he tripped through a layered, metallic crush of spikey rock/minimalism spiced with slide guitar barrages that, in contrast to its morphing density, had a surprisingly airy quality. Avoiding clichés, he used the vocabularies of the genres as his own starting points, setting up subtle backgrounding electronics and samples, switched on and off with canny judgement, to add depth to the overlays which he built up on his custom, transparent-bodied guitar. For any guitar aficionado, it was worth it just to hear this spot.

To complete the first set, a sensitive duet with bassist Riaan Vosloo and a quietly turbulent trio, to play Sharp's Hard Landing, when joined by drummer Andy Bain, that had the feel of a lo-fi manifestation of Bill Laswell's New York band, Material.

The centrepiece of the evening was Sharp's graphic score composition, Foliage, performed with six of the brightest British jazz improvisers, including piano heavyweight, Liam Noble and a lively horn section comprised of Percy Pursglove, Jeremy Price, and Alex Woods. Working off the graphic score, projected on to the screen behind the stage, which presented monochrome, digitally generated graphic images derived from some of Sharp's earlier conventional scores, they developed an unpredictable, floating flux in a new music vein which, in many ways, defied categorisation, although there are some clues in the LondonJazz interview about the background to the project with Riaan Vosloo.

The momentum ebbed and flowed with their changing responses to the visual stimuli to create a sense of the multi-sensory experience that underlies Sharp's concept. Drawing on the inventive resources of the ensemble their challenging, open-ended sequence of spontaneous individual and group responses plotted a unique interpretation of the score that had a rich contemporary classical texture, a few steps removed from the jazz flavour that might have been expected from the performers involved. This was, above all, a tribute to their imagination, versatility and combined ability to read both the score and the group dynamics, and to the breadth of Sharp's vision. They ended the evening with a brisk but relaxed improvisation 'to let their hair down', as Sharp put it, and wind down proceedings on just the right note.

Elliott Sharp - guitar and conductor
Andrew Bain - drums
Liam Noble - piano
Jeremy Price - trombone
Percy Pursglove - trumpet
Alex Woods - saxophones
Riaan Vosloo - double bass

With thanks to Frontiers Festival, Arts Council England, Birmingham Conservatoire and Third Ear. Jazz on 3 recorded this concert for transmission on 21 April.

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