Friday, July 18, 2008

new sonny simmons

the jazz world is subject to notable disappearances -- players who take the spotlight and then are rarely if ever seen or heard from again. in fact i'd even argue that structural absences and disappearances are built into the very structure of a commercial marketplace: it's a given that if your recordings are not popular or do not sell, you will experience a social and possibly literal death.

sonny simmons broke into the scene in the early sixties, playing with the likes of mingus and dolphy before leading his own sessions for ESP, something of a rite of passage for anyone who was anyone in the free jazz scene. several more strong releases followed, then after 1970's burning spirits, next to nothing for 22 years. there were recordings in 1982 and 1990 that did not get much notice, but during this period simmons was living mostly on the street, somehow managing to keep some working groups together and making private recordings while battling family problems and substance abuse.

1992's ancient ritual, released on the minor-major qwest label (there's a story that needs to be told, how that record deal came about), marked the beginning of simmons' comeback -- one that has only accelerated as simmons reaches his 75th birthday. just this year we have three new releases: a recent quartet date, a recent solo effort, and a 4CD compilation of recordings from the "lost years." they are reviewed by jeff stockton for all that jazz.

simmons has a brittle, acrid alto tone somewhat reminiscent of jackie mclean to my ears, though he has also studied his coltrane and is capable of brilliant flurries of notes as well. his phrasing is definitely rooted in charlie parker and hard bop but also makes recourse of freer idioms. when doubling on english horn (an oboe cousin), his tone and phrasing tends to take on an eastern air.

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