In 1980, legendary altoist Sonny Simmons was at his lowest point. Describing himself as "shipwrecked when the gigs dried up and the money ran out, Simmons followed his wife and frequent collaborator, trumpeter Barbara Donald, from San Francisco to Olympia, Washington, with the hope that the change of scene would revitalize their tenuous marriage and put their family on firmer ground. He lasted six weeks up there and disc one of these newly released concerts captures Simmons a world away from his home turf in those weeks before he was to return, fronting a trap drummer (thought to be personal friend, Irvin "Foots Lovilette) and a percussionist on congas and bells known only as Max, an African-American and one of the few Olympians with whom Simmons had something in common.
Who knows how many people were in the Gnu Deli as Simmons stated the melody to "It's the Talk of the Town ? You can guess that by the end of it, after forty-three minutes (when the tape runs out) of a persistent drumbeat and Simmons' possessed soloing, not many.
Disc two is from the Cheshire Cat, roughly eight months after Olympia and finds Simmons fronting a rhythm section comprised of pianist Richard Clements, bassist Freddie Williams and drummer Larry Hancock, local heroes at the time but not much heard from since. "The Lost Village of Um'Tombey burns with a heavy Coltrane vibe, the rhythm circling around and spiraling out and Simmons rescues "Body and Soul from cliché with a personal commitment to emotional expression and honesty.
The horn-playing is always creatively intense and logically coherent, but it's the defiance that captivates the imagination. When Simmons faced the void, he responded the only way he knew how: by playing as long and as hard as he could.
It should be noted that this release is offered in a very limited quantity by the Sonny Simmons Archive Project and, having been mastered from cassette, it's a bit like listening to shortwave transmissions accidentally caught on an AM radio. But your ears will adjust. These recordings fill a crucial hole in the missing years of a jazz innovator.
Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone; Richard Clements: piano; Freddie Williams: bass; Larry Hancock: drums; Irvin Lovilette: drums; unknown percussion.