Sonny Simmons
Manhattan Egos
Arhoolie Records / Originally released in 1969 (

cd cover The sound will entrance you. A tight rhythm bears down, two horns weave in mannered lines, then everyone goes berserk. Simmons makes a different kind of free jazz and he was there at the movement's beginning. He made his first album in 1962, played beside Eric Dolphy on The Iron Man. His is an adventurous spirit, with gutsy alto sax inspired by Charlie Parker. The first five tracks feature his working group of the time, and the interplay is telepathic. A bowed bass opens "Coltrane in Paradise." The horns rise up slowly, in a theme of contentment. From there they start boiling; Barbara Donald with hard, forceful trumpet, Simmons with nervous flutters. His tone stays close to Coltrane's. It's a fitting tribute.

"The Prober" has a stark theme, quickly dissolving in the storm that follows. Paul Smith works the cymbals for a dozen moody colors; Donald shrieks while Simmons wiggles at the top of his horn. His solo is three minutes of energy, with Donald playing a soft twitter beside him, and it is magic.

Congas pound on the "Seven Dances of Salome," alongside Simmons' English horn. (His axe in the high school band, it is his favorite instrument.) He winds like a snake charmer through a forest of rhythm, the word is "haunting." "Visions" reminds me of hard-bop, or the early tunes of Ornette Coleman. The horns talk tough, with a big boost from Smith. Simmons takes a slithering solo, a little less strident than the others. The bass walks, Donald has her best moment, and it ends with a big crash. This album makes a big, bold, beautiful statement.

cd cover The rest of the disc is a bonus, a concert from 1970 with a totally different group. Simmons is joined by Michael White, the fusion violinist who's played with Joe Henderson. "Beings of Light," a busy waltz, has a different sound. Simmons is raspy, with an R&B honk. This tone was absent on the earlier date and it sounds wonderful here, especially with the electric bass. White's notes are cool and glassy, almost like a synthesizer; this is vital on "Purple Rays" where his tremolo sets the mood. White is alone for "Divine Magnet," where he moves with classic grace. For a moment he sounds like Stephane Grappelli, then come odd chords and mysterious swoops. The last minute sounds like a Samuel Barber classical piece; from there it fades suddenly, its mystery left intact.

Suddenly we're in "The Beauty of Ibis," which is restless and themeless. The opening fades in, with the fury in progress. Simmons rumbles, then darts little blasts up high. Eddie Marshall explodes on the drums. If the bass was strong before, it's unstoppable now. Simmons stretches out, with soft feathery notes. Marshall destroys the tom-toms in a lengthy solo. White is mournful on the leisurely end-theme, and it ends on a ton of applause. Sonny Simmons was definitely in form. After this date he'd come on hard times, including a 15-year stretch when he played on street corners. Of late he's returned to the scene, recording again and full of the old spirit. Here's hoping he gets the recognition due him. - John Barrett

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