The Complete ESP Disk Recordings

[ESP Disk,]

The Traveller

Sonny Simmons has always been somewhat of an outsider. While players like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman got their due in the 60's, Simmons' music boiled just beneath the surface. Being in his mid 70's, is he finally getting his due this late in life? One of my personal favourite Sonny Simmons moments on record was his enormous contribution to Eric Dolphy's 1963 recording "Iron Man". Fully alive and cognizant of his enormous powers on alto, Simmons blew all hell out of that large ensemble. Along with Clifford Jordan and Bobby Hutcherson, it was Simmons that actually shaped that record. Three years down the road, he made his first two [and in fact, only two] recordings for the blossoming ESP imprint. "The Complete ESP Disk Recordings" collects two 1966 sessions Simmons recorded for ESP: "Staying on the Watch" and "Music of the Spheres". Both are excellent examples of his wind prowess - his sheer jubilant force. Mad, bad-ass blowing is executed all over the course of these two albums. Check out the first disc for his mad blowing technique. The way he tackles his music is not unlike some of Don Cherry's late 60's best dates. When Simmons blows, he abandons this world forever. It's almost for certain he's blocking all communication with this world and taking things to the next level. Sure, he communicates with his band. Check out his rough interplay with trumpeter Barbara Donald on "City of David". Donald has these marvelous bursts of potent energy within her that she releases when things are too smooth, too comfortable. Pianist John Hicks is a real madman. For the duration of the first disc, he pounds the keys madly, forcing them into submission, while the quintet plays all around him. Second release "Music of the Spheres" is no less exhilarating. While Simmons remains firm in his solos, Barbara Donald once again plays furious solos on the trumpet. Though some of the fury remains from the earlier session, Simmons also slows things down and plays in mid-tempo for a few minutes at a time. Pianist Michael Cohen is not as aggressive on the keys as John Hicks, though he does have some moments in the spotlight [check out his clusters on "Balladia"]. The only distraction on this re-issue is about 40 minutes worth of interviews with Simmons. It would have been better to devote an exclusive disc to Simmon's ramblings on everyone from Eric Dolphy, Barbara Donald and new music in general. Otherwise, the pacing of the music is brisk and the sounds are sweltering with the sweat of utter commitment and passion. "The Complete ESP Disk Recordings" reminds us of Simmons at his peak form.
"The Traveller" proves that European labels are more willing than American ones in taking a risk in going with a player who has remained daring. Jazzaway Records put Simmons together with a string quartet to come up with this session. This doesn't mean that the strings take over the mood of the record. Far from it. Simmons flexes his alto muscle more often than not, showing everyone present that he's the boss. Throughout the disc, he makes bold, often rousing statements on alto and English horn. Even on a gentler piece like "Brainstorm", he's all fire and brimstone. When the pace picks up, there's no stopping him. No real conflicts arise between the string quartet and Simmons. A few jagged moments but that's all. Otherwise, the two factions work in unison. In the autumn of his life, Simmons can truly play a mean ballad. Check out the closing number "Sunset" for proof. Gently rolling, measured- out poignant lines escape from his horn. Majestic beauty. It's worthy to note that "The Traveller" is only the first part of a trilogy. Other two parts are due out later this year.

- Tom Sekowski

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