This long-overdue reissue is surprising and satisfying on a number of levels. First of all there’s the fact that it’s on Arhoolie, an imprint far better known for its preeminent Roots and Blues music releases by the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clifton Chenier and Flaco Jimenez, than as a purveyor of Avant-Garde jazz. Fortunately label owner Chris Strachwitz’s tastes veered in just such a direction in the late 60s by way of more traditional strains of the music and recognizing the importance of Simmons’ music he quickly set about organizing the studio date that serves as the first half of this disc. What’s even more exceptional is that Strachwitz had the fortitude to bring his portable Magnacord reel-to-reel recorder to a Simmons show in 1970 resulting in the generous 35 minute concert that appends the studio date.
Next there’s the music itself, which finds Simmons and his partners in positively peak form. The studio session centers on a quartet fronted by Simmons and his wife Barbara Donald that gallops through five soaring numbers. But unlike Simmons’ pair of ESP dates from several years earlier ( On the Watch, Music From the Spheres ) which suffered from muddy sound the fidelity here is comparatively clean and crisp. The horns are the principal voices in each piece though Simmons and Donald allow significant space for their rhythm-mates and both Juma and Smith craft cogent statements from their respective instruments as well. On the tellingly titled “Coltrane In Paradise” Simmons reaches into the altissimo register of his horn pulling forth slippery lines that slide into the range of soprano. Donald’s brass bleats a regal retort before a shimmering dialogue between bass and drums. With the anthemic theme restated the piece closes succinctly. Throughout the “The Prober” the players poke and prod at an elusive thematic fragment. Simmons bends effusive melodic streams around a pattering cymbal clatter and Donald counters blowing sharp, plangent lines.
Smith and Donald drop out on the Arabic-inflected “Seven Dances of Salome” leaving Bembe to join Simmons’ English horn and Juma’s conga in a twirling Sufi dirge. Simmons eventually slips into an Islamic-tinged vocal chant and the players work off a pattern of almost Carnatic intricacy. “Visions” is carried along on a shuffling beat and unison theme. Simmons’ Dolphyesque solo floats around the upper register before a roller coaster descent into the lower depths of his alto. Donald takes a few choruses and then it’s Smith’s chance in the spotlight building his solo from a short burst of explosive press rolls.
Though the fidelity on the live date with White, Marshall and Jenkins is rougher, the performances lose nothing in the way of intensity. If anything Simmons sounds even more inspired in this spontaneous setting, careening and cavorting through his reed (which though credited as an alto, sounds more like a tenor) with barely contained enthusiasm. To make matters more enticing each of the four pieces the players work over is given full and glorious extended treatment. As this opportune offering makes readily apparent Simmons is a sizable talent. We should consider ourselves fortunate that he still with us and actively recording. To sum things up with an emphatic endorsement, as an affordable vantage point into the man’s early career this generous disc really cannot be bested.
Tracks:Coltrane In Paradise/ The Prober/ Manhattan Egos/ Seven Dances of Salome°/ Visions/ Beings of Light*/ Purple Rays*/ Divine Magnet*/ The Beauty of Ibis*.
Players:Sonny Simmons- alto saxophone & English horn; Barbara Donald- trumpet; Juma- bass & conga drums; Paul Smith- drums; Voodoo Bembe- conga drums°; Michael White- violin*; Eddie Marshall- drums*; Kenny Jenkins- bass*.
Recorded: February 10, 1969 and November 6, 1970, Berkeley, CA
Arhoolie on the web: http://www.arhoolie.com