Honesty. Clarity. Dignity. These are words that come to mind when you listen to the music of bassist-composer Avery Sharpe. In an age of ephemeral pop stars and flavor-of-the-month trends, Sharpe is a reminder of the lasting value of steadfast dedication and personal integrity. As the title of one of his tunes asserts, “Always Expect the Best of Yourself.”
Sharpe was born in Valdosta, Georgia, and his first instrument was the piano. “I started playing when I was eight years old,” he recalls. “My mother was a piano player in the Church of God in Christ, and she gave lessons to everybody in the family—I’m the sixth of eight children—but it didn’t stick until it got to me.” He moved on to accordion and then switched to electric bass in high school.
Sharpe enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, where he studied economics and continued to play electric bass in gospel, funk, and rock groups. While at UMass, he met the jazz bassist Reggie Workman, who encouraged him to learn the acoustic bass. Sharpe adapted quickly to the big instrument, and within a few years he was performing with such notables as Archie Shepp and Art Blakey. In 1980, Sharpe auditioned with McCoy Tyner and won a spot in the pianist’s group. He worked with Tyner almost continuously for 20 years, playing hundreds of live gigs and appearing on more than 20 records.
Sharpe’s credits also include sideman stints with many other jazz greats, from Dizzy Gillespie to Pat Metheny, as well as leading his own groups. His first recording as a leader was the 1988 album Unspoken Words on Sunnyside Records. In 1994 he started his own artist record label, JKNM Records. To date he has more than 10 titles as a leader for JKNM Records, his latest JKNM recording is Avery Sharpe-Sojourner Truth-Ain’t I A Woman released in August 2012 and featuring Jeri Brown, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Yoron Israel, Craig Handy, and Duane Eubanks.
Mr. Sharpe is equally adept at songs and longer compositional forms. In 1989, he wrote and conducted the soundtrack for the movie An Unremarkable Life. A decade later, his six-movement piece America’s Promise debuted with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. In the 1990’s Sharpe received a commission by the classical group Fidelio to write three extended works. In 2004, he wrote a musical portrait for the stage for Chamber Music Plus. The stage production Raisin’ Cane has been touring since 2007 and features the actress Jasmine Guy and Sharpe’s Trio. In 2006, he was commissioned by the Springfield Symphony to write a Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra, which premiered in the 2007, featuring the Trio with (former “Tonight Show” musical director) Kevin Eubanks on acoustic guitar. Avery Sharpe’s extensive educational activities include numerous clinics and workshops at home and abroad. He has presented at the University of Massachusetts, Williams College, Berklee School of Music, Bates College, the University of Miami, and at colleges in Peru, Brazil, Australia, and elsewhere. His awards include The NAACP Martin Luther King Jr. Special Achievement Award, several National Endowment for the Arts Grants, and the NEFA 1997 Achievement in Jazz Award.
Regardless of the setting, Avery Sharpe always brings both exceptional musical skill and unswerving honesty to the endeavor. “You can be sincere or you can be jive about what you do,” he says. “People might not be able to tell at first, but if you’re really sincere it will come through.”
What the Critics Say
“Even in these times of extraordinary bass players, Sharpe stands out.”
—Leonard Feather, Los Angeles Times
“The key to the thrusting power of Mr. Tyner’s current trio is the bassist, Mr. Sharpe. . . . Alternating between acoustic and electric bass, [he] maintains such a commanding presence on both that he is a center around which everything else rolls.”
—John S. Wilson, the New York Times
“Heavy gospel influences are often evident in Sharpe’s original work. The way his solos slowly enlarge, like the sermons of a pulpit-thumping preacher, reflect the spirits of his childhood home.”
—Mike Ervin, Jazzi
z“Long-time bassist for McCoy Tyner, Sharpe excels on his instrument and shows creative composing and arranging skills as well.”
—Sunsh Stein, JazzTimes
“Sharpe is amazing on the electric bass. . . . His guitar-like solos display a musicianship and a melodic quality that are almost unheard of on that instrument.”
—Jim Fuller, Minneapolis Star and Tribune
“Sharpe’s technique on both electric and acoustic bass is always used to further the music … [and] his fellow musicians have noticed.”
—Jim Roberts, Guitar Player
“Forget about categories like mainstream and fusion and neobop … because if there’s one thing you can say about Avery Sharpe, it’s that there’s no label worth hanging on him except musician. And at that, he’s extraordinary.”