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Sonny Simmons: Staying on the Watch

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons embraces music with his whole body, soul, mind and spirit; that much is clear from Staying on the Watch, recorded in August 1966 and reissued by ESP-Disk in 2010. Not everything that he did got its due: when Simmons came on the scene, he remained too close to Charlie Parker. When he discovered his own brooding voice with that characteristic, sharp intonation that made his alto sound almost like a shenai (Indian flute), he floated on a seemingly endless wave of music that was ancient yet modern. Simmons has always stood in the future to look back at his lonely African-ness, and he coaxed a storm to remind anyone who would listen that the harshness of life could be turned into something raw, beautiful and memorable for its beauty rather than its ugliness.

On Staying on the Watch, as on others of this period (and even today), Simmons tongues his reed as he circulates breath through his lungs. Examining his own existentialism deeply, Simmons' extraordinary take on the Kafkaesque "Metamorphosis" is a vibrant take, rather than the disturbing version told by the writer decades before. Simmons also heralds his futuristic beliefs with his beautiful song, "A Distant Voice," making him a 25th Century prophet. The chart moves quickly from its dissonant opening to a soft, contemplative elongation of the body of the work. As he stretches, Simmons howls and prays with fervor, examining the wonderful world that he has discovered. He shares all this, of course, with his trumpet playing partner, Barbara Donald. Both voices intertwine like lovers locked in an endless embrace. The svelte tones of Simmons' alto goad the burnished tones of his wife's horn to an ecstatic conclusion where the celebration of finding that "distant voice" brings about the song's memorable conclusion.

The magnum opus on the album is "City of David"—an epic recasting, in the image and likeness of William Blake, of the classic poem and hymn, "Jerusalem." The ceremonial opening and closing of the piece is classic Simmons: shrill and ecstatic, the saxophonist stretches his mysticism to such a grand realm that there is a feeling of being drawn, trance-like, into another world altogether. Simmons takes a great deal from Eric Dolphy as he sews a quite unique harmonic fabric, often locking together disparate phrases and lines with a nonchalant bravado. In this respect he owes a great deal to Parker's inventions and rhythmic leaps, which set the stage for the future of all music as we know it. Finally, an oblique doff of the hat to Sun Ra closes the disc, with the majestic "Interplanetary Travelers." The beauty of the piece is in its dark rumblings, as the ensemble's players chart a course for a realm as yet undiscovered by the earthly pursuits of musicians of the day.

In retrospect, Staying on the Watch is tinted with distinct shades of an approach that is more mystical and all-embracing; a wholly captivating experience.

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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