Maximalist experimental jazz from four heroes of the genre.
For eight years starting in 1986, the searing free jazz quartet of Sonny Sharrock (electric guitar), Peter Brötzmann (sax), Bill Laswell (electric bass) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums) went on a tear that seemed to rip open a whole new approach to the music.
As Last Exit, the four icons of the 1970s and ‘80s experimental jazz movement combined to tour, record the sets and distribute the explosive recordings to the masses. Maximalist in every way — Sharrock’s guitar was fueled by distortion and Jackson’s kit was an imposing mass of drum heads, cymbals and bass-kicks — the band injected unchecked fury into a genre that at the time was entering its Kenny G phase.
The clips below reveal the ways in which four musicians used volume and feedback to kick against a set of assumptions about jazz’s continued creative relevance.
Note: This is aggressive music at nearly every turn and, as such, is best consumed at proper volume. Adjust your ears, psyche and system accordingly.
Last Exit live at the Deutsches Jazzfest (1986)
This full set is an excellent introduction to Last Exit’s approach. In 1986, the top-selling jazz artists included light fusion and smooth jazz players including George Howard, Hiroshima, Michael Franks and Spyro Gyra. Imagine walking into a club expecting contemporary jazz — only to be met by this. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, definitely hit 6:20 on the clip to watch Jackson go nuts; and watch a Laswell solo that leads into a metal-driven groove at 16:50. Sharrock’s wildest solo begins at 29:00.
Last Exit in Bochum, Germany (1988)
Two years later Last Exit reconvened for a tour that landed in the West German mining town of Bochum. This audience-shot performance finds Sharrock and Brötzmann dueling on their instruments before Jackson and Laswell bust in to join the fun.
Last Exit featuring Diamanda Galas and Billy Bang in Moers, Germany (1986)
Want some skronk to wake your neighbors? Like, the kind that makes everyone but you scratch their heads? The year that Last Exit first joined forces and gigged the Deutsches Jazzfest, they played at the Moers International New Jazz Festival in Moers, West Germany. This audio recording features an augmented line-up that included experimental vocalist Diamanda Galas and violinist Billy Bang. Heavy? Oh man.
Sonny Sharrock Band at Lucerna Hall, Prague (1990)
Those looking to appreciate the ways in which Sharrock let loose with Last Exit would be advised to absorb this miraculous Sonny Sharrock Band set from 1990. This music is much more refined and restrained than his stuff with Laswell and company. Sharrock, who died in 1994, hadn’t yet released his essential studio album Ask the Ages when he played in Prague, but the seeds of the sound are there.
Sonny Sharrock at the Knitting Factory (1988)
To say that Sharrock tore through New York in the 1980s is an understatement. If his amplifier at the beginning of the decade was set at six or seven, by 1988 he’d upped it way past eleven. This gig on the tiny stage at the great East Village club the Knitting Factory sees Sharrock teaming with bassist and longtime Arto Lindsay collaborator Melvin Gibbs and the double-drumming of Abe Speller and Pheeroan Aklaf.
Last Exit, “Iron Path” (1988)
Finally, those interested in the masterful way in which Laswell captured Last Exit’s essence in the studio should immediately track down their only studio record, “Iron Path.” Originally issued on Laswell’s Axiom label, it’s every bit as stunning as Sharrock’s own classic album for Axiom, Ask the Ages. More nuanced but no less combustible than their live work, “Iron Path” is one of the best jazz albums of the 1980s. It’s embedded below.