Once heralded as a “young lion” of jazz, Avery Sharpe is now a savvy 65-year-old veteran of performing, recording, composing, and teaching. Perhaps best known for his long association with pianist McCoy Tyner, Sharpe has backed many jazz greats and has led his own groups, playing both upright and electric bass, and recorded 13 albums for his label, JKNM Records. His latest is 400: An African American Musical Portrait, which was released earlier this year. It is a brilliant, wide-ranging suite with ten tunes, all but one composed by Sharpe, that present a musical overview of the African American experience, from the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619 to the present day.
In the album’s liner notes, David Adler compares 400 to Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige. It’s an apt comparison. Just as Ellington did in 1943, Sharpe has used the expressive power of his compositions to present an historical perspective that uses both words and music to communicate with — and educate — his listeners. Throughout the album, Sharpe’s bass is the central voice, whether he is playing a melody, providing subtle support, stepping forward to solo, or engaging in dialogue with the other musicians. “All music starts from the bottom,” he says. “Bass is second nature for me, and I hear things from the bottom first. I go from there.”
As he began to conceive the work, Sharpe says, he asked himself, “How can I put 400 years into 60 minutes? I started thinking about how I wanted to approach that compositionally. I decided to break it up into 100-year intervals.” Those four centuries became the structural components of the suite, with each era represented by two or three pieces.
The first section, Century One, begins with “Arrival,” a sort of overture featuring some of the key players who are heard throughout, including guitarist Kevin Eubanks, saxophonist/flutist Don Braden, and drummer Ronnie Burrage, who has been collaborating with Sharpe since the 1980s. After an opening instrumental theme, we hear the Extended Family Choir — a six-voice group that includes Sharpe’s brother, sister, niece, and nephew — singing “stolen from my land” in Swahili. After guitar and tenor sax solos, there is a call-and-response section with Sharpe’s bass and Tendai Muparutsa’s djembe (an African goblet-shaped drum) answering the choir, as they sing “the new world” in Swahili. The voices and instruments then unite for a closing theme.
The second piece is called “Is There a Way Home” and expresses the longing of the slaves for their African homeland. “I did that tune for a play with the actress Jasmine Guy, called Raisin’ Cane, which was based on the literary work of Jean Toomer,” says Sharpe. “It’s not angry — it’s more like a lullaby.” Sharpe’s solo on the tune is like a griot’s tale, with flurries of notes, double-stops, and ascending phrases that combine to create a narrative arc.
Century Two begins with “Colonial Life,” a tune that brings to mind another great bassist–composer, Charles Mingus. Reminiscent of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the piece is not a blues in the conventional 12-bar sense but has, as Sharpe puts it, “tinges of the blues.” He readily acknowledges the influence of Mingus on his work — “big time,” he says, “in terms of bass playing and as a composer and leading the band. He’s probably one of my biggest inspirations.” On “Colonial Life,” Kevin Eubanks’ guitar is featured, with strong rhythmic backing from Sharpe and Burrage. “On that one,” Sharpe explains, “we’re starting to get to where stuff is getting deeper in terms of the slave trade and building up to the Civil War.”
Up next, “Fiddler” is a striking portrait of the music that slaves played on the plantations, beginning with Sharpe’s evocation of a classical waltz played by two violins, with a bass solo that explores the contours of the melody, before it makes a transition to old-time string-band music. Sharpe says the piece was inspired by his longtime friend and collaborator, the violinist John Blake Jr., who died in 2014. “John had this thing that he did with violin and African instruments, because there are African instruments that are precursors to the violin,” he says. “The rhythm [of the string-band piece] is like an old woman at one of those plantation gatherings, maybe hitting her cane on a wooden floor.”
Moving ahead into Century Three, Sharpe begins with “Antebellum,” an a cappella gospel hymn, with the Extended Family Choir imploring us to “Get up, rise up.” The follow-up, “A New Music,” moves past the Civil War and toward the 20th century with a ragtime piano piece, composed by Sharpe and played by Zaccai Curtis, which shifts into a New Orleans jazz–style tune with a hard-swinging bass solo. The big-band period is evoked by “Harlem and the War to End All Wars,” with Sharpe’s concise bass line anchoring the rhythm section under guitar and tenor sax solos and then moving into a potent solo, perhaps his best on the disc, marked by sharply punctuated phrases that build to an emphatic conclusion.
The final century begins, appropriately enough, with a slow blues, “Blues and World War II.” Having played acoustic guitar on all the preceding tunes, Kevin Eubanks moves to electric here, playing an extended solo that’s followed by Davis Whitfield on piano. The two trade phrases and then — bang — we’re into bebop, with Sharpe leading the way on a head that showcases his arco–scat style. A longtime admirer of Slam Stewart, Sharpe has become his most worthy successor, and one of the few contemporary bassists to master this distinctive style. “Jimmy Blanton gets the credit for bringing the bass more in front, playing horn lines,” says Sharpe, “but I contend it was actually Slam, because he was doing the hum-along bass a year or two before Blanton, with Slim & Slam.”
The album’s only non-original tune follows, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” a spiritual that was heard often during the civil rights demonstrations of the ’60s. Sharpe states the melody on his bass before the choir takes over, and he moves to the forefront again on a solo marked by bluesy smears and other voice-like techniques. A powerful recitation by Sofia Rivera, Sharpe’s niece, caps the piece, with words that bring it right up to the present: “Never backward, onward, forward/There is no turning back now.”
The conclusion of 400 is “500,” a contemporary-jazz composition that looks to the next century with feelings of both anger and hope. After guitar, piano, and trumpet solos, Sharpe steps forward for a final solo marked by crisp accents and powerfully articulated runs. The tune ends not with a concluding chord but a fade, as if to say, where is this going? “Quite honestly, I was thinking of Obama and the nonsense we have now,” Sharpe says. “Some of the things I had to do 30 or 40 years ago, I have to do now. I’m like, Wait a minute, I thought we went through that whole thing. I’m curious about the next hundred years. I’m not going to be here for all of that, but my kids and their kids will be. I’m hoping for the best.”
As a composer, Sharpe has done a remarkable job with 400, making us see and feel the different eras of African American history as expressed through musical styles. For bassists, there is an additional layer of meaning, as his playing on the album, especially in the Century Three and Century Four sections, traces the evolution of jazz bass, from Pops Foster to Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart to Ray Brown and Charles Mingus and up to the present day. “I hadn’t thought about the bass playing aspect of it,” he says, “but I was thinking about the historical aspect — it’s not just African American history but American history. I was trying to take you on that journey.”
On 400, Avery Sharpe played only one bass, a 1935 E. H. Roth 7/8 upright that he has owned since the 1990s. It has had one major repair, a neck replacement by David Gage that was done, Sharpe says, a year or two after he got it. The strings are a custom La Bella 7720 set, with unconventional materials and construction for a brighter tone. The bass was recorded with a microphone and a direct signal from either a David Gage Realist or Underwood pickup. No amp was used in the studio.
Avery Sharpe, 400: An African American Musical Portrait [2019, JKNM]; Avery Sharpe Trio Live [2010, JKNM]; McCoy Tyner, Infinity [1995, Impulse!]; McCoy Tyner, Live at Sweet Basil [1987, Evidence]