Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sonny Simmons' Unsung Genuis

There are a lot of Sonny’s in jazz.  It takes more than few clicks to scroll through my IPod library from Sonny Clark to Sonny Stitt.  Tonight I added a couple of albums by alto sax man Sonny Simmons.  Simmons has by God paid his dues.  He was born in 1933 and played with a number of jazz greats in the 1960’s, including Mingus, Dolphy, and Elvin Jones.  Then he disappeared for a couple of decades, apparently living on the streets for a spell.  He reemerged in the mid 90’s. 
Simmons is described in the Penguin Guide as one of the most underappreciated jazz masters.  From what I have been listening to, I am inclined to agree. 
I am playing cuts from the two albums both recorded in 1966.  The Penguin Guide suggests Music from the Spheres as the first Simmons album you ought to have.  It is certainly a robust new thing document, leaving no doubt that you are listening to an alto virtuoso and a compositional genius.  I am playing ‘Zarak’s Symphony’ and ‘Dolphy’s Days’.  The latter is a superb bit of chameleon jazz.  You want Eric Dolphy?  I can be Eric Dolphy!  From Discogs, here is the lineup:

1.       Alto Saxophone, Written-By – Sonny Simmons
2.      Bass – Juney Booth*
3.      Drums – James Zitro
4.      Piano – Michael Cohen (2)
5.      Trumpet – Barbara Donald

I am also playing ‘Metamorphosis’ from Staying on the Watch.  If Simmons was very explicitly channeling Dolphy in the other album, here he is evidently channeling Ornette Coleman. 

1.       Alto Saxophone – Sonny Simmons
2.      Bass – Teddy Smith
3.      Percussion – Marvin Pattillo
4.      Piano – John Hicks
5.      Trumpet – Barbara Donald

This is very energetic, compelling avant garde jazz.  The piano work by Hicks has to be noted as brilliant.  I haven’t yet heard any of Simmons’ later work.  I will be hunting.