With Blues for Next, Elliott Sharp has turned in the best update on the blues since Skip McDonald's Little Axe project. This is a set that honors and respects the classic sounds of the '50s, while adding elements that make it sound contemporary -- without making it sound like rock. The first disc of the two-disc set features Sharp's Terraplane quartet with a handful of guests; the second is simply the quartet. The quartet itself brings an amazing breadth of experience to the table. At the time of this recording, Sharp had been one of the most visible proponents of the New York "downtown" musical aesthetic for over 20 years. Longtime cohort bassist Dave Hofstra had experience ranging from John Zorn and William Parker to Luka Bloom, and had even been a member of the Waitresses. Sax player Sam Furnace worked with both Julius Hemphill and Johnny Copeland, and drummer Sim Cain spent many years in the Rollins Band. The collaborators on the first disc (only one guest for any given tune) are vocalists Dean Bowman and Eric Mingus, and legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Mingus (yes, Charles was his father) and Bowman both wrote their own lyrics, which are virtually devoid of any standard blues cliches. That in itself is a major accomplishment, but they show themselves to be excellent vocalists as well. Sumlin's participation is not particularly revelatory, but it's great to hear him playing and having fun in this setting. They cover plenty of blues territory as well, from the classic boogie of "Rollin' & Tumblin'" to the New Orleans second-line rhythms of "As It Falls," played with two tenors, drums, and a tuba, with Bowman showing off with musical coughing and a little Leon Thomas-type yodeling.
As great as the first disc is, things really start to get interesting on the second disc, where the band experiments a little more with the blues form and Sharp brings a little more of his personal vocabulary to the proceedings. This disc is all instrumental, and really showcases Sharp's techniques in a setting far different than his usual avant excursions. The band will be playing in the blues idiom, then switch gears and move into a reggae/dub-influenced rhythm, with Cain switching to electric drums to add a drum'n'bass flavor, then back again. Even when Sharp is using effects and extended techniques, or the band is playing something different than a standard blues sound, the feeling of the blues is never lost. Sharp is no blues guitar technician, but then neither is Sumlin or John Lee Hooker; it's all about feeling, and Sharp's got that. This recording is a lot closer to the real spirit of the blues than a truckload of teenage Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabes.