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Sonny Simmons: Staying on the Watch

Jerry D'Souza By

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The sixties were a time of turmoil and invention. Jazz was cast into several shapes by musicians who were willing to take chances, were not afraid to go against the grain, and believed in their vision to fathom and articulate new territory. Alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons was among those who added to lore. He could fathom a cry of anguish just as easily as he could herald a shout of joy, as he created an ambience that spread its wings to encompass melody and lyricism. This balance is seen to advantage on Staying on the Watch, his first record as leader.

Simmons had the perfect musical partner in trumpeter Barbara Donald, his wife at the time. She was propulsive, churning out dynamic lines that created a language of her own while complementing the outpourings of the alto sax. Pianist John Hicks was in the early stages of his career; his melodic touch is, nevertheless, in evidence and he plays a key role in the development of these compositions.

Simmons ramps up "Metamorphosis" with lines that convolute and curve. His ideas pour resplendently and, even as he envisages changes on the quick, he keeps his approach clean. The texture gets deeper as the rest of the band comes in and takes off into the stratosphere, with Donald at the helm. Her intensity and charge coruscate through the veins of the composition until the tack changes. Smith plays arco, his gentle bowing calming the storm. Hicks adds a tangent of his own; swinging as he unleashes a torrent of notes, before slipping into bop mode, urged on by percussionist Marvin Pattillo. It's an open ended piece, with each player carving an individual path central to the core.

The lyrical side of Simmons comes to the fore on "A Distant Voice." Long notes make a passionate plea, space makes momentum deliberate, yet his plaintive cries do not dispel quick interjections that change the angle and add a degree of surprise.

Simmons turns "Interplanetary Travelers" into molten springs of invention. He shifts register, squiggling into the upper and then descending effortlessly to construct a web of startling lines. Donald matches his intensity; not only comrades of a high order, Simmons and the trumpeter are also complementary to the central nerve of the composition.

Simmons stands tall as he marks his territory, with freedom and restraint, in a potent program.

Track Listing: Metamorphosis; A Distant Voice; City of David; Interplanetary Travelers.

Personnel: Teddy Smith: bass; John Hicks: piano; Marvin Pattillo: percussion; Barbara Donald: trumpet; Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone.

Title: Staying on the Watch | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: ESP Disk

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