When it comes to avant-garde jazz-rock noise, few bands kicked out the jams better than did Last Exit. A who's who of jazz players with punk-ass attitudes, Last Exit — guitarist Sonny Sharrock, bassist Bill Laswell, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann — could swing, rock, and create an all-out free jazz din all in the blink of an eye. More important, Last Exit were about the thrill and danger of total improvisation; so much did they believe in this concept that their debut performance in Zurich in 1986 was completely improvised and unrehearsed. Granted, one person's free improvisation is another's tuneless chaos, but Last Exit, due primarily to the skill of the individuals involved, only infrequently fell off the precipice into the netherworld of arty wanking. These four men belonged together emotionally, intellectually, and musically: Sharrock had gotten his start playing blues, but rebelled against structured, proper guitar technique, preferring to play sheets of atonal metallic distortion; Shannon Jackson grew up playing Texas blues, but through working with players such as James Blood Ulmer, explored a percussive world that was not regimented by time and meter; Bill Laswell played and produced rock, funk, and "straight" jazz, and in Last Exit he mashed all of these influences into one feral ball of noise and rhythm; and Peter Brötzmann didn't simply blow sax, he blew it to bits as if his life depended on it.
For a group so driven by improvisation, it is not surprising to find out that much of Last Exit's catalog consists of live recordings. What is inescapable is Last Exit's power; not only did they play ferociously, they played at maximum volume, improvised jazz-rock at Motörhead decibel levels. When angry audience members confronted the band during a gig complaining about the volume, Shannon Jackson not so subtly suggested they take their sorry asses home. The playing is intricate, wildly adventurous, frequently funny, and, perhaps most important, a tribute to musical democracy in action. Any one of these players could take over a tune and dominate, but the reality of Last Exit live was that there was a relaxed, almost intuitive give and take to their performances, as if each musician knew when to blow hard and when to quiet down, when to take the space to solo and when to lay back. Even more amazing was the fact that Last Exit's audience was becoming younger and less identified with traditional jazz audiences. The band's assaultive approach to improvisation was attractive to punk rockers and adventurous speed metal fans.
Because of the reputations of the individual players (Brötzmann being the least well known of the group in America), as well as Laswell's position as a big-shot producer (Motörhead, Iggy Pop, Herbie Hancock), Last Exit got a major-label shot with Virgin in 1988. They never became huge, but they continued touring in between various solo projects until they called it a career after the tragic death of Sonny Sharrock in 1994. (Ronald Shannon Jackson died in 2013 after a battle with leukemia.) Thankfully, there is plenty of Last Exit to be heard, and, rumor has it, plenty of live recordings still in the can. ~ John Dougan