Freedom is both an integral and multi-layered topic for improvised music, describing its mechanics, aesthetics, and values and often an underlying political dimension as well. In the case of free jazz specifically, the word carries additional weight given the music's deep connection to the black liberation movement of the 1960's and 70's.
The passionate and unclassifiable work of Calgary-based improviser Jairus Sharif embraces each of these definitions of freedom and others, albeit strictly on its own personal and idiosyncratic terms. Since early 2020, the 34 year-old autodidact has been generating a steady stream of homespun solo recordings that forge unprecedented connections between hip-hop abstraction, cosmic skronk, outsider jazz, and staunch post-punk DIY ethos.
Leading up to the pandemic, Sharif's immersion in spiritual and exploratory jazz had culminated in him deciding to purchase an alto saxophone. Unbeknownst to him this instrument would be a catalyst for him to discover his own ardently individualistic artistic voice.
Prior to that point, he had always been somewhat of a solitary musical traveler. In 2002, he acquired his first instrument—a pair of Technics 1200s — but struggled to find local collaborators that had equal investment in hip hop culture. Ultimately, Sharif picked up the guitar, turning to the resilient local punk community, that had also nurtured both of his mothers some time earlier.
As Black Lives Matter gained momentum in the wake of George Floyd's murder, Sharif was suddenly flooded with an acute awareness of his own identity. It compelled him to zealously plunge headlong into open-ended spontaneous solo creation. Water & Tools, his strange and stirring debut for Toronto's Telephone Explosion Records (home to full-lengths from the likes of Brodie West's Eucalyptus, Mas Aya, and Joseph Shabason), offers a glimpse into this ongoing hermetic journey.
As Sharif dedicated himself to uncovering his own deeper musical truths, he assembled a home studio in his basement, cobbling together a drum kit from bits his bandmate had left at his house pre-pandemic, chaining effects together and outfitting the entire space with microphones. Somewhere between the chaos of child's treehouse and the tidy import of a shrine, this space (pictured on the album's back cover) consecrated his own imagination. He laid it out to maximize access to any and every tool in his arsenal, providing him a freedom to explore that he had never permitted himself to consummate before.
Within this cozy private universe, his recent purchase—the saxophone—assumed new meaning. It furnished a tangible connection to the black radicalism that mobilized free jazz, but also something far more personal. From a technical standpoint, the instrument was completely unfamiliar to him, yet rather than this being a hindrance to Sharif, his inexperience opened fruitful path forward, unencumbered by preconceptions. Resolving to shirk formal training, convention, and build his own understanding of it from scratch, allowed him to access his most raw, fundamental creative impulses. The Saxophone's inseverable bond with breath compounded this effect, echoing revelatory discoveries he had been making about breathing through yoga, research, and psychotherapy. Of course, the parallels with BLM's harrowing rallying cry—“I can't breathe”—were not lost on him either.
Water & Tools is a dense, contradictory statement with a blustery surface that shelters a soulful heart. It's generous music, exuding profound vulnerability—grappling with the loss of one his mothers, Lisa—all the while brimming with electric wide-eyed wonder. Almost every one of the nine pieces seems to carry some semblance of a groove, while remaining completely untethered from pulse. For Sharif, this collection is an expression of newfound lucidity, however for the listener his sonic concoctions act as powerful psychotropics. At points, there's a timelessness that's conveyed through the music's processional, ritualistic tenor, and yet there's an endless amount of wild, futuristic detail waiting to unspool at any given moment. Similarly, while this recording emerges from Sharif's private pilgrimage and personal emancipation, he also leaves room for collaboration. Woven throughout Sharif's one-man-ensemble textures, one finds Maxmilian Turnbull (of Badge Epoque, U.S. Girls, and Cosmic Range infamy) providing sundry keyboards and treatments, as well as his mixing skills.
Whether conjuring effusive psychedelia or plumbing introspective depths, the music that Jairus Sharif produces is singular, visceral, and wondrously unpredictable. Water & Tools sketches a raw, firsthand account of his nascent explorations within his own unbridled imagination.