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Sonny Simmons - Jewels

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Artist: Sonny Simmons

Album: Jewels

Label: Boxholder

Review date: Nov. 17, 2004

With Anthony Braxton's For Alto 30-plus years in the can, the novelty of the solo saxophone recording has long since expired. Everyone from Rob Brown to John Zorn has at least one solo project in his portfolio. Some like Steve Lacy and Evan Parker have even devoted sizeable portions of their discography to the pursuit. Jewels isn't Sonny Simmons' first commercially available foray into the idiom either. That distinction goes to Out into the Andromeda, released in 2003 on the now defunct Parallactic label. Taped in a friend's living room in 1991, this new Boxholder disc is the better of the two and technically predates its predecessor.

Simmons has a long-standing chip on his shoulder, but by most accounts it seems a righteous one. When greeted with repeated grousing from his peers directed toward his tenor playing, he chose to record an entire album on the larger horn (Judgment Day on CIMP) to "settle the score to silence these egotistical bastards for all time." That same take-no-shit attitude informs his lengthy improvisations here, but the absence of a band also allows ample ingress for introspection. Simmons isn't putting anyone on. His expression-rich phraseology comes as much from the head as the heart and gut.

Braxton may have pioneered the solo saxophone recital, but Simmons' focus here harkens to a much more indelible influence, that of Charlie Parker. As long as there is jazz, Parker will be a patron saint and Simmons' style carries some of the vestigial vernaculars of Bird's bop. Fast tempos and fleet pad-fingerings are regular features of his style along with an incisive clarion tone that's recorded up close and personal on the disc's five lengthy cuts. A hard-boiled assertiveness informs Simmons' style, often tempered with a disarmingly earnest tenderness. All of the tracks capture his alto's essence with beatific clarity.

Eric Dolphy fits as another prime shaping agent in Simmons' sound. The influence dates back to the pair's mid-'60s sessions together, since reissued on a number of fly-by-night labels. "Music Matador," the opening piece on this set, actually originates from one of their early meetings. Throughout the bouncing Sonny Rollins reminiscent calypso, Simmons largely eschews his old friend's vaulting intervallics and shapes out ribbons of notes that swoop and soar along more overtly linear trajectories.

Interplanetary and spiritual perspectives provide thematic context for much of the music, reflected both in titles and Simmons' open-ended improvisatory approach. "Cosmic Funk" builds over 19 minutes. Simmons explores a myriad of limpidly voiced permutations, stamping each melodic variation with a return to a syncopated rhythmic motif. "Caribbean Nights" re-deposits the mood under a tropical canopy similar to that of the opener. "Other Worlds" and "Reverend Church" chart courses for the outer reaches beyond terrestrial constraints and Sunday pulpit, respectively. Together, the prolix nature of the tracks makes the prospect of a single instrument breathing them to life seem problematic. Simmons' attention to detail coupled with a keen sense of itinerary assuages such doubts, keeping the trip from turning stale for patient and receptive ears.

By Derek Taylor

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