Solo saxophone recordings (and, for that matter, solo recordings in general) offer more than just a glimpse into the process of self-composing, of testing material and approaches to sound as well as getting into the nature of the instrument. Though it lacks the sparring that begets improvisation (for that reason, Derek Bailey prefers to call it "solo playing"), unaccompanied work offers its own kind of spontaneity and thrill. Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, and Joe McPhee have contributed greatly to the development of a solo saxophone lineage, in such a way that their respective bodies of solo work are distinct entities. But the solo setting also offers a unique window into the approach of improvising artists who rarely record this way.
Altoist Sonny Simmons, whose seminal recordings with fellow reedman Prince Lasha in the 1960s displayed a true peanut butter-and-jelly brand of communication, had not been recorded in a solo setting until Jewels. This 1991 set, which predates his recorded return from hiatus by a number of months, offers a unique window into his alto playing, its history, and its soul on five compositions. The set begins with a solo reading of "Music Matador," a tune co-penned with Lasha (though Lasha is not credited here) that was first recorded with Eric Dolphy and Lasha for Conversations in 1963. One of the most unmistakable compositions from that period, it is in some ways difficult to visualize without the flute-alto-bass clarinet front line that characterizes its nuanced Afro-Latin flavor. Simmons' rendition of the piece here strips away some of the rollicking nature of its earlier incarnations, slowing down the tempo and emphasizing how gorgeous and plaintive the thematic material is at its core.
"Cosmic Funk" uses a calypso-inspired rhythmic motif as its primary jumping-off point, balanced by a somewhat pastoral ballad section, and Simmons effortlessly swings between these two thematic poles throughout a nearly twenty-minute exploration of his roots as an ornithologist. Unaccompanied here, it is interesting to note that Simmons seems closer to his bebop roots on this set, with echoes of The Cry! (his first date, with Lasha) and its unique rhythmic foundation, especially on "Cosmic Funk." By the mid- to late-'60s he was co-leading a juggernaut of a band with his then-wife, trumpeter Barbara Donald. The lyricism of this more visceral unit was peppered with the bustle of its Lower East Side environs; the easy swing and bubbly phrasing that characterized his early work was augmented with gritty multiphonics and a more biting tone (especially on tenor). Perhaps it was the relaxed home-recorded atmosphere of this session, but Simmons sounds forty years earlier in his career.
Jewels offers something entirely different from the Cosmosamantics and the work that immediately preceded it, an unfettered view of one of the most distinctive and lyrical alto voices to come out of the post-Bird jazz vanguard. It is a pleasure to hear unaccompanied Simmonshis is a music not of fashion, but of sincerity.