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The Re-Rebirth of Cool 

Jonah Sharp, aka Spacetime Continuum, strives to uncover the meeting point of jazz and techno

Wednesday, May 5 1999
Eleven years ago, in a lush field outside of London, jazz drummer Jonah Sharp tripped his brains out and stumbled upon the beauty of inorganic sound. There, in the Dionysian setting of a rave, Sharp realized that playing bebop standards in the British jazz circuit was a stale process when compared to the endless possibilities inherent in techno -- a rhythm-based music whose rules and methods morph as quickly as technology permits.

So, after a prominent gig as an acoustic session drummer for the Acid Jazz label in 1989, Sharp finally cut his ties to the jazz community and delved into the creation of experimental, chilled-out techno. "I had always been into machines," he explains. "Afrika Bambaataa, Kraftwerk, Grandmaster Flash -- these were my influences throughout the '80s, even while I was playing in jazz clubs. These were the seeds of techno and dance music. But when I got into the rave scene, I got really into electronics and had to leave the drum kit behind."

Since relocating to San Francisco in 1991, Sharp has established a thriving career in a genre that remains relatively ignored by the mainstream American market. In addition to launching the ambient- and techno-focused Reflective label in 1993, Sharp signed his solo Spacetime Continuum act to the country's most powerful dance music label, Astralwerks, and has produced over 13 albums, some of which include collaborations with pioneer electroheads: Carl Craig, Bill Laswell, Autechre, Tetsu Inoue, Mixmaster Morris, David Mufang, and even psychedelic guru Terrence McKenna. It's not a bad career to have resulted from one hit of Ecstasy.

While Sharp's ambient-tinged work of the past seven years shares little aural resemblance to the jazz idiom, his upcoming Spacetime Continuum release, Double Fine Zone, marks a circuitous return to his original love. On the record, Sharp forsakes cutting-edge technology and obsessive programming for acoustic drums, analog synthesizers, a '70s Fender Rhodes piano, and the saxophone playing of the London-based Brian Iddenden. Fusing these elements through a sequencer and sampler, Sharp creates a hybrid of old-school techno and futuristic harmonics that is grounded in bebop's structure of solo improvisation and unconventional rhythmic patterns.

"The improvisational spirit of jazz is what I try to get into all of my music," says Sharp, whose greatest inspiration is bebop drum innovator Max Roach. "My early stuff is improvised electronic music, so why not replace the synthesizer with a saxophone and a trumpet? In the early Detroit techno, there was a real jazz spirit and sense of swing and freedom in the music."

To compare techno and jazz, however, seems far-fetched. After all, jazz is marked by the player's virtuosic skill, whereas techno is characterized by the producer's ability to compile computer-generated sounds onto a floppy disk. Jazz is for the sophisticated, attentive listener; techno is for the frenzied club kid who is more concerned with scoring a tab of acid than investigating the complexities of musical composition.

"You can definitely be a virtuoso programmer," argues Sharp. "There is a craft to being an expert programmer -- it can be an art, but it's very time-consuming."

"Good dance music is like a rebirth of cool," he continues. "There are people emerging from dance music who you can compare to Miles and Gillespie. Carl Craig, for example, is like Miles -- always going off in new directions. Miles never repeated himself, and always stuck his neck out for new sounds. That's the thing about electronic music -- it's always going further, always inventing new sounds and explorations on a rhythm. A lot of music doesn't do that; rock is rehashing the same old shit. But with electronic music, there are so many possibilities. I can't see myself running out of ideas, especially with my collaborations."

It is the jazz sensibility, then, and not necessarily the sound, that Sharp carries into his role as techno producer. Like the jazz musician, the techno creator is a nomad in the music industry; he regularly plays and records with other musicians and is not bound by the rigidity of the identity-based status that defines pop or rock. Moreover, neither musical form is reliant on lyrics to establish cohesion; techno and jazz are, for the most part, abstracted instrumentations that remain outside the song-driven loop of the mainstream.

Sharp is undaunted by techno's lack of commercial success in America. "When I was playing jazz, I was really into the idea of being a musician and studying your craft until you're 80 years old," he says. "A jazz musician will dedicate his whole life to studying an instrument -- it's not about how you look. MTV stuff is about projecting an image, while the record is less than 50 percent of the product. I'm more into the artistic development. If I wanted to make the Top 40 playlist, I wouldn't be making this type of music in the first place."

As musical outsiders, the partnership of jazz and electronica proves a sympathetic union. "Jazz musicians are excited to work with me because they see the way I work as a way forward for their music," says Sharp. "I see jazz as a way forward for electronics, so it's a mutually beneficial relationship. Plus, a lot of the jazz players I know are really dissatisfied with their scene. They're great players, but they're just not going anywhere because it's difficult to break out of the old-school jazz mold and make records."

Double Fine Zone is only the start of Sharp's re-emergence into a more literal jazz mode. Under the Spacetime Continuum moniker, Sharp performs his material live -- well, as "live" as a techno producer can be, tethered to a plethora of gear and computer cords. He also plans to include more live jazz musicians on future gigs. "Playing live is the most exciting, direct communication with my audience," he says. "I'm working on performing live with straight-up and or Latin jazz players because I'm ready to get back into the spirit of knocking stuff out and collaborating with other people -- but more on the live instrument level. Just using a drum machine is really boring to me now."

A public demonstration of live electronica, however, is a rarity in a genre whose music is almost never generated in real time. Aside from Roni Size and Dubtribe, few artists will commit to a club or rave performance that is more personal and imaginative than the playing of their favorite records. "Sometimes spinning tracks works well, but sometimes it's so fucking disappointing," Sharp says. "I saw Daft Punk play live a few years ago and was completely blown away by their energy. But now they just DJ -- and the sad thing is, the audience accepts that. It seems to be good enough to just see them play their goddamn records."

Sharp, who learned his real-time skills through observing the Orbital play live, insists that DJs and producers will gain a more widespread musical credibility if they practice their equipment with the same level of discipline that a musician would his instrument.

"Max Roach didn't get where he is by spinning records; he went home and played the drums for 40 years every day. He engaged in the process of learning a craft, and that perfection is what makes music jazz.

About The Author

Amanda Nowinski


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