American alto sax and English horn (Cor Anglais) player Sonny Simmons needs no introduction. Now 81 years old, Simmons was a key player in America's free jazz eruption in the 1960s. He released his first solo albums on ESP- Disk, the exponent label of free jazz and recorded or played with legendary musicians like Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus and Don Cherry. Since the seventies his musical career went through some turbulent phases.
Fortunately, in the last decade Simmons found a sympathetic, supportive environment that helped present a rich musical vision. He recorded on the Norwegian label Jazzaway, of saxophonist Jon Klette, that featured Simmons as a seminal pioneer. As a soloist, Simmons recorded with local Norwegian musicians on (The Traveller, I'll See You When I will Get There in 2006 and Last Man Standing, in 2007. He collaborated with pianist Svein Olav Herstad's trio and as a featured soloist with the Crimetime Orchestra on the highly impressive Atomic Symphony in 2009.
Later, Simmons recorded for independent French label Improvised Beings in more intimate and lyrical settings. That began in a duet with veteran pianist François Tusques (Near the Oasis in 2011. This year, he led a chamber trio on Beyond the Planets. That label produced this 8-disc box, recorded between 2006 and 2013, celebrating Simmon's 80th birthday and new incarnation as an explorer of post-Terry Riley, minimalist, Indian-tinged ambient drones. Simmons still searches restlessly for new textures and modes of expression, but with a distinct personal sound.
The first four discs, titled Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom And Brilliance feature Simmons' spiritual side, as the titles reveal. This new phase comes as no surprise. Simmons was brought up in a religious family. His father was was a Baptist preacher and a voodoo priest and he, already as young musician, adapted Ayler's belief that music is the healing force of the universe.
In these discs, Simmons structures loose, an Indian-raga like modes. The pieces begin with a soft, meditative introduction of the theme equivalent to the alap part of the raga, followed by slow development within an ethereal structure, as in the raga part jor. Unlike Indian ragas, these extended pieces do not seek to reach an ecstatic, cathartic climax or to offer dazzling solos, the jugalbhandhi part of the Indian raga.
In these ambient and often ritualistic pieces, Simmons alternates between the English horn and alto sax in focused, contemplative tones, adding occasional wordless humming and poetic lines in his deep voice. He enjoys the atmospheric sonic platform of Julien Palomo on space-progressive rock electric keyboards and Michel Kristof on electrified Indian string instruments, mainly the sitar. Both also work together as the Other Matter duo.
The last four discs are called, ironically, Chasing the Bird? (Dead Years Ago, Million Years Ahead), acknowledging Charlie Parker's huge influence, though Simmons never attempted to imitate Parker's sound. Simmons experiments with electronics-based, open-ended sonic textures, rarely opting for the lead soloist role. Simmons is backed on these discs by the Other Mind duo, augmented with electronics and sound artists Anton Mobin, and AKA_Bondage and Nobodisoundz, Js. The sonic experimentations include post-rock, distorted guitar textures, noise elements, abstract, raw white noise, and atmospheric layers of sound produced by distant layers of keyboards. Often, Simmons' horns and voice are sampled and processed in real time within the otherworldly textures.
The discs are divided into themes. The first disc is a collection of short pieces and focus on what Simmons calls Instrumental Martial Arts of Tomorrow, adapting titles from karate moves. "Put It in a Black Area Where I Can Remember No More"; the second, "The Breath of Life" and third, "Old Lonesome Roads," position Simmons hovering leisurely over tranquil waves of keyboards on the first then chanting and talking over the effects-laden guitar of Kristof on the latter. The last disc, "Worlds of Worlds of Worlds," offers long and lyrical, symphonic-like pieces based on Palomo's keyboards and the gentle playing of Simmons on the English horn.
Overall, Simmons offers over 7.5 hours of music, full of compassion, wisdom and new sonic vision.
Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom And Brilliance: CD 1: Three Is A Powerful
Figure;You Are Not Higher Than Angels Part 1; CD 2: You Are Not
Higher Than Angels Part 1; Four Is Equal To The Fingers Of Your Hand;
The Fatherlands (Niger); CD 3: You Are Not Higher Than Angels Part 2;
You Are Not Higher Than Angels Part 3; Five Is The Thumb; CD 4: The
Inner Outer Chord (Way Down In The Past); The Outer Inner Chord; What
Do We Know? - Who Are We - As Humans; Chasing the Bird? CD 5:
Instrumental Martial Arts Of Tomorrow: Himeru Dojo; Chudan Tsuki;
Seika Tanden; Ura; Aiki Kokyu; I Put It In A Dark Area Where I Can
Remember No More: Black Waves In A Delta Blues Home; Another Story
Calling Tonight; Giant Could Approach Stars; Magnus Fact In Act;
Shadows Colored Music; Feel The Outside World; Solisax; Forward
Thinking Thoughts (Luxbxl Dream); Keep Going Olone: CD 6: The Breath
Of Life: The Breath Of Life 1; The Breath Of Life 2; The Breath Of
Life 3; The Breath Of Life 4; CD 7: Old Lonesome Roads: We Can Turn
Invisible; I Can't Go No Farther Than That; Going Through The Storms;
CD 8: Worlds Of Worlds Of Worlds Of: To Change The Harmonic Structure
Of The World; Dead Years Ago, Million Years Ahead.
Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone (CD 2,4,5,6,7,8), voice (CD 2,3,5,6,7),
English horn (CD 1,2,3,4,5,8); Bruno Grégoire: percussion (CD 1,2),
voice (CD 2,3) ; Michel Kristof: sitar (CD 2,5), electric guitar (CD
5,6,7), electrified ersaj (CD 1, 5), Electrified sintir (CD 1);
percussion (CD 2); Julien Palomo: organ (CD 4,7), piano (CD 1),
synthesizer (CD 1,6,8), harmonium (CD 2), strings (CD 4), percussion,
voice; Anton Mobin: prepared chambers (CD 5); AKA_Bondage: prepared
electric guitar (CD 5); Nobodisoundz, Js: electronics (CD 5).
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