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Sonny Simmons: American Jungle

Douglas Payne By

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Legendary firebrand Sonny Simmons was one of the great players in the avant-garde, free-bop movement of the early 1960s. Although recorded infrequently, he always made passionate statements on alto that were fierce and relentless. Every note he blew demanded to be heard. He's spent the last 30 years in San Francisco largely unrecorded. But now in his sixth decade, he's survived and, better yet, lost none of the passion or anger that made all his music so compelling. Today, he's got more energy and ideas than young re-boppers half his age. Simmons surprised many last year with his critically acclaimed "comeback" trio disc, Ancient Ritual, on Quincy Jones well-distributed Quest label. Since then, he's had a 1990 session surface on CD (Global Jungle) and even recorded for the first time on tenor (!) for CIMP (Transcendence and Judgment Day).

This outstanding Simmons release offers another rather jolting surprise — piano! For a man who's almost never relied on piano's rhythmic cushion, this is something of a shock — and a chance to hear the alto giant's dynamics in a new way. He's accompanied by 28-year old Travis Shook on the 88s, former Coltrane stalwart Reggie Workman on bass and incisive drummer Cindy Blackman (who’s putting those Tony Williams influences to great use here). Shook, afforded quite nice solo spots here in "Black, Blue & Purple" and "My Favorite Things," sticks to block chords (a la McCoy Tyner) throughout in an effort to avoid crowding Simmons. As a matter of fact, the rhythm section as a whole wisely helps glide Simmons along to his destination — without ever getting in the way.

Things start off with the straight-forward bop-rock of "Land Of The Freaks;" a reference of sorts to the fire music of Roland Kirk. Rather surprisingly, Simmons winds through the collages of Kirk’s polyphony, multi-instrumentation and angry swing on one horn while the trio forcefully recapitulates resourcefully from behind. "Black Blue & Purple" evokes memories of Eric Dolphy — yet force the listener to account for Simmons on his own terms. Quite frankly, nothing this man plays can be ignored — or compared disfavorably to another horn player. Coltrane finds homage in both "Coltrane Story" and one of the more welcome, unique renditions of "My Favorite Things" heard since Coltrane popularized the song in 1960.

The disc's greatest moment comes at the end, in "American Jungle Theme;" an odd, yet just-right mix of urban funk and near-dissonant freemode. It's a glorious statement of principals that finds Simmons wailing almost constantly for all of the song's 13 minutes. Each note he plays is inspired. The rhythm section keeps the blood flowing in the potentially monotonous ostinato cadence. This is like a great war cry that has a musical power unlike anything that's been heard in jazz over the last 25 years or so.

American Jungle offers nearly an hour of powerful music — unequaled in it's grace, fire and passion by anything produced thus far in 1997. Recommended.

| Record Label: Quest | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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