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Norman Simmons 2000-2004

Jack Bowers By

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Norman Simmons
The Art of Norman Simmons (2000)
Synthesis (2002)
In Private (2004)
Savant Records

Better late than never. Listening to these impressive sessions by pianist Norman Simmons and his sundry companions, spanning the years 2000-2004, the thought occurs that it would be a shame if such talented musicians as he were never recorded at all. I'd not heard of Simmons but learned from perusing the liner notes that he has been playing professionally for more than half a century, starting in Chicago and later moving to New York, and that he has performed with such legendary artists as Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, among others, and accompanied an array of top-rank vocalists that includes Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Anita O'Day, Dakota Staton and Joe Williams, to whom the tender ballad "Joe" (on The Art of Norman Simmons ) is dedicated.

What I learned from actually listening to Simmons is that he is a master craftsman along the lines of a Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron or James Williams, an impeccable accompanist who swings hard in any context, and a remarkably perceptive soloist with an elegant touch, explicit command of the keyboard and an abundance of imaginative ideas to impart. He's also an accomplished writer, as he shows on each of these engaging albums with such shapely and soulful compositions as "Joe," "Stiffed," "6 AM," "Georgia's in Town," "Winter's Gone," "Roscoe Franbro" and "Sushi Yama Blues."

The most recent outing, In Private, showcases Simmons in a trio setting (Lisle Atkinson, bass; Paul Humphrey, drums), while the earlier two ( Synthesis, The Art of Norman Simmons ) are enhanced by the presence of young tenor star Eric Alexander who never delivers a false note and is typically brilliant from stem to stern, port to starboard. Another Chicagoan, guitarist Henry Johnson, excels on The Art, as do bassist Paul West and drummer Paul Wells. On Synthesis, Simmons, Alexander and Johnson are ably supported by Atkinson and Wells with percussionist Kevin Jones helping spice up the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and Simmons' "Ramira the Dancer."

As a Chicagoan, Simmons is steeped in the blues, and opens each of these albums with a candid example of same — "I'm Your Boogie Man" ( The Art ), "Georgia's in Town" ( Synthesis ) and "Sushi Yama" ( In Private ). "Town," of course, is Simmons' astute variation on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and embodies heated solos by Johnson, Alexander and the maestro. In his diligent search for the proper song, Simmons draws from a wide range of sources including the Beatles ("Here, There and Everywhere," the aforementioned "Eleanor Rigby"), Billy Strayhorn ("A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," "Something to Live For," an uncharacteristically upbeat version of "Lush Life"), Juan Tizol ("Caravan"), Victor Young/Ned Washington ("Stella by Starlight"), Earle Hagen ("Harlem Nocturne"), Alan and Marilyn Bergman ("How Do You Keep the Music Playing"), Johnny Burke/Jimmy van Heusen ("It Could Happen to You") and even Fredric Chopin ("Waltz," the closing number on In Private ). The "Waltz" is preceded by a medley of Luiz Bonfa's lively "Manha de Carnaval," set in motion by Atkinson's eloquent arco passage, and the equally rhythmic and charming "Recado Bossa Nova."

Simmons is a seasoned and resourceful mainstream pianist, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, as I was, any of these three arresting albums is a wonderful introduction to his consummate artistry.


The Art Of Norman Simmons

Tracks: I'm Your Boogie Man; Joe; There Are Such Things; My Silent Love; Stiffed; Harlem Nocturne; 6 AM; The Hour of Parting; Medley: I'm Getting Sentimental Over You, Roscoe Franbro (71:43).

Personnel: Norman Simmons, piano; Eric Alexander, (1-3, 5-7, 9), tenor saxophone; Henry Johnson, guitar; Paul West, bass; Paul Wells, drums.

Synthesis

Tracks: Georgia's in Town; Here There and Everywhere; Eleanor Rigby; Winter's Gone; Lush Life; A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing; Something to Live For; Ramira the Dancer; No More; You're My Thrill (57: 46).

Personnel: Norman Simmons, piano; Eric Alexander (1, 3-5, 7, 8), tenor saxophone; Henry Johnson (1, 3-8, 10), guitar; Lisle Atkinson (1-8, 10), bass; Paul Wells (1-8, 10), drums; Kevin Jones (3, 8), percussion.

In Private

Tracks: Sushi Yama Blues; Stella by Starlight; My Melancholy Baby; It Could Happen to You; How Am I to Know; Caravan; Soft Wind; How Do You Keep the Music Playing; Medley: Manha de Carnaval, Recado Bossa Nova; Chopin Waltz (64:35).

Personnel: Norman Simmons, piano; Lisle Atkinson, bass; Paul Humphrey, drums.

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The Art Of Norman...

Savant Records
2000

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13th Moon

Not On Label (Norman (15) Self-released)
1986

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