The name Sonny Simmons is variously preceded by the words "underrated," "underappreciated," or even "unknown." Based on the evidence presented on Burning Spirits, a session from late 1970 – released the following year as a double LP and just been reissued by Fantasy Records – the neglect and indifference of jazz listeners has been criminal.
Simmons had released a few recordings in the ‘60s as a leader on ESP and Arhoolie (all currently back in print), but it would be nearly 22 years before he made another significant recording after Burning Spirits. The harrowing intensity of the solos, the unrelenting quest for transcendence, and the overriding spirituality of the compositions indicate a substantial amount of recovery time was in order. Simmons – and his band – left it all in the studio.
The title track is delivered in two versions, each leading off what used to be the first side of the individual LPs. Simmons’ style is original, equally convincing on alto or tenor, mixing Ornette’s vocal quality, Coltrane’s harmonics, and Albert Ayler’s unflinching conviction to something greater. Under these circumstances, when Simmons steps aside and lets his band come forward, it’s a welcome let up, and each player is inventive and interesting. Barbara Donald’s trumpet is straightforward and pure, while Michael White delivers dramatic violin swipes on "Healing Rays" and delightful melodic playing on "Things and Beings," the gentlest piece on the disc. Here, Simmons plays the English horn with the buzz of an exotic woodwind from the Nile valley, and Lonnie Liston Smith’s liquid piano substitutes for Donald’s trumpet. On "New Newk," the group takes on a more traditional quartet formation, and Richard Davis plays pliant and flexible bass. On all the other tracks, Davis (on the left channel) is paired with Cecil McBee (on the right) and the two-bass attack is consistently effusive and exciting.
For 80 minutes Burning Spirits grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go. It’s a full dose of old school energy music that’s hard to come by these days. Except, Sonny Simmons is still out there, making records and pouring it out on stage. It’s not too late to give him his due.
Personnel: Cecil McBee - Bass
Sonny Simmons - English Horn, Alto and Tenor Sax
Lonnie Liston Smith - Piano
Barbara Donald - Trumpet
Clifford Jarvis - Drums
Michael White - Violin
Richard Anthony Davis - Bass