October 3, 2006
In the mid-1960s, when Louisiana-born saxophonist, Sonny Simmons was probably at his most influential, a succession of important jazz musicians converged on a club in Krakow, Poland called the Helikon. Some of the younger musicians developed an ebullient, devil-may-care attitude and style that drew a great deal from the free jazz experiments taking place across the Atlantic. The communist authorities were not amused, especially when some of the regulars at the club, such as trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist, Janusz Muniak, dared to carry their alarming message further afield, flaunting their talents to great acclaim around northern and central Europe. The counter-reaction was ruthless but effective. The club lost its licence.
Some of these early experimentalists feel that they have been unjustly accused by association of laying the foundations for the horde of talentless so-called acolytes who honk and screech their way through a set without bothering to learn the changes or master their instruments. Janusz Muniak in particular is very keen to disassociate himself from the young pretenders, telling me in a recent conversation that the avant-garde "creates a mess and there's no one to clear up afterwards". He has long since abandoned the spontaneously improvised sets that characterized his playing with Stanko in the sixties, but the photograph of Sonny Simmons that hangs near the entrance of U Muniaka, the jazz club he owns in Krakow, reminds his customers that he paid his dues in the outer reaches.
Interestingly, Sonny Simmons is just as keen as Muniak to distance himself from free jazz, claiming in a recent interview that he is 'affiliated' even though he hates the avant-garde. Fortunate enough to spend his adolescence in Oakland, California, he was able to combine a meticulous practice regime with firsthand experience of touring jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. It is unsurprising, therefore, that he has chosen to collaborate on so many occasions with reedsman and composer Michael Marcus, whose moments of free expression are underpinned by an exemplary technique and firm sense of the tradition. With the addition of bass and drums, they make up The Cosmosamatics. Since their formation, they have recorded seven albums and toured Europe several times. I was fortunate enough to catch them in Alchemia, the club where they recorded five of the tracks that made it onto their last album,The Zetrons (2005, Not Two Records).
Sonny Simmons is a talented and entertaining self-publicist. The myth precedes the man, so its difficult to know what to expect when seeing him for the first time. An embittered howl of outrage against the circumstances that for several years saw him busking on the streets of San Francisco, a desperate victim of substance abuseA rejuvenated old master enjoying the chance to embark on a second careerMaybe, even a missing link between Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins (as he himself has hinted).
Michael Marcus is less of an enigma. His blues-drenched tenor and exotic clarinet are a perfect foil for Simmons' impassioned alto and mysterious English horn. In addition to their mystical inclinations (the name of the band speaks for itself), they are united by an interest in tonal textures. Both readily employ multiphonics and are never afraid to explore the upper range of their instruments. Although they occasionally teeter on the edge of complete freedom, they never lose touch with the sense of structure and form that is so apparent in their compositions. The breadth of their understanding is accentuated when they urge each other on, offering affirmative statements and implied vocalizations under each other's solos, varying from simple riffs ("Go on, man! ) to the dolphin noises and gurgling laughter that Simmons conjured up during a number with a nautical theme.
Stylistically, however, there are some noticeable differences. It was certainly no surprise to discover that Michael Marcus started off us a harmonica player as he intersperses the bustling runs that often frame his tenor solos with wailing blues statements that sound surprisingly fresh and relevant. His whimsical clarinet playing is sometimes reminiscent of Jimmy Hamilton's contributions to Duke Ellington's Far East Suite.
Simmons clearly shares Ornette Coleman's fascination with melodic development and Eric Dolphy's penchant for huge interval leaps and tonally-ambiguous long notes, but he is very much his own man. He has a fascinating tendency to reach for simple motives or defining intervals, wrestling with them like a dog with a bone, and sucking them dry before spitting them out, and moving on. His acerbic tone is punctuated by bird-like trills and, like Coleman, he continues to play with a youthful vigour.
Simmons and Marcus often work with bassist, Masa Kamaguchi, but on this occasion Peter Herbert substituted at short notice. Austrian by birth, he was a stalwart of the New York scene for many years, before returning to Paris, where he has been based since 2003. His interest in Arabian music (he has recorded with several masters of the oud) and formal composition, in theory made him an excellent choice. The quartet was made up by current drummer of choice, Art 'Sparky' Lewis, who might be familiar for his contribution to composer-pianist Andrew Hill's comeback session Spiral (Freedom, 1975)and previous work with Sonny Simmons and bassist Charnet Moffett on the live trio album, Triangular Force, recorded in Montreal in 1994.
The set began with a brutal call to arms. Announcing his presence with a venomous drum roll, Art Lewis launched himself into a lengthy tirade punctuated with furious cymbal bursts and stuttering bass drum. The tension was barely relieved by Herbert's entry. Insistently plucking a single note, he led into a plangent melodic statement, but the drums refused to subside, so he resignedly cued the horns with a fast walking passage. Simmons and Marcus entered with a theme based on a simple motif that was transposed and harmonized. Saxophone solos followed, Simmons appearing to float over the stormy drumming, before signing off with a fierce palmed trill.
The next number, an undulating theme called "May-Lee-High-Young" (Chinese for "Beautiful Ocean") marked a dramatic change of focus, successfully exploring common ground between the blues and the orient. Less of an attention-grabber than a slow burn, the bass relaxed on the groove and started to get funky, allowing the horns to explore a range of melodic possibilities.
The first set closed with an intricate unison boppish theme, but the highlight of the half was an impromptu unaccompanied Sonny Simmons interpretation of "Theme for Ernie , a beautiful ballad associated with John Coltrane. He showed little interest in improvising on the chords or varying the dynamics, but the intensity with which he embraced the flattened ninths on which much of this melody hangs and the individuality of his jagged fills turned this performance into a personal statement of intent as much as a celebration of sound.
The Cosmosamatics got exotic at the beginning of the second half with a version of the title tune of their last album, Dance of The Zetrons. After the theme was stated on clarinet and English horn, it effectively turned into a bass feature for Herbert. Urged on by Simmons' stamping foot and driving gestures, he produced a dynamic counterpoint, brushing his palms against the body of the bass while beating time, or crossing his hands over like a harpist and banging the strings below the scroll with the thumb of his right hand while plucking with his left. He was eventually rewarded with a nod of approbation from Simmons as the tune faded out with an insistent banging bass rhythm.
But Simmons was not finished, entering under Marcus' solo on the next number (an intriguing waltz theme) with a gruff riff that spurred the tenor man on, until he flew into an extended passage of cascading runs. The ground was set for Sonny Simmons to make an entry, and what an entry he made. Finding an apt note, he returned to it again and again, savouring the sound, and eventually using it as the basis for a tempestuous, yet beautifully constructed solo that showed him to be the master he has always claimed to be.
The penultimate tune was a harmonically sophisticated Marcus composition, called "Morning Daffodil , which was vaguely reminiscent of some of the beautiful ballads that composer-pianist, Elmo Hope, penned before his untimely death. The horns negotiated the thicket of chords with ease, and Herbert felt relaxed enough to contribute a novelty solo, complete with Dixie tuba sounds and Country and Western glissando that hinted at what he gets up to when accompanying the avant-garde theatre projects that he has recently been composing for.
Lewis clearly appreciated this release of tension as he contributed a cheeky solo with mysteriously echoing snare to the last number, a rather austere vehicle that harked back to the wild and free 60's. Simmons chose to dispense with formalities, offering a faint 'Goodbye' to the audience from backstage, but he'll be back. The band went into the studio the next day to record an album of their new material. Should be interesting.
Personnel: Sonny Simmons: alto sax/english horn; Michael Marcus: tenor sax/clarinet; Peter Herbert: bass; Art Lewis: drums.