Even at 72, the great Sonny Simmons still comes up with the unexpected. On The Traveller, the veteran musician nestles into beautiful compositions and arrangements by Vidar Johansen with a group augmented by an elite string quartet from the Oslo Philharmonic. Johansen surrounds Simmons in strong, open charts that create taut frameworks for improvisational weaving. The melodically driven program spotlights Simmons' gift for spontaneous lyricism.
The string quartet introduces itself on "Humphrey with stark figures melting in the fire of Simmons' English horn. After a brief melding of the quartets, Simmons' signature alto leaps into action, gracefully vining through with bouquets of variations. After strong mid-tempo ensemble work on an appealing theme, "Armada allows Simmons to set sail and swing. He shares inspired moments with pianist Anders Aarum on "Spheres. Aarum's clipped chords complement the sax's seamless soaring, then he rolls the changes tastefully around in his right hand.
Duet pairs Simmons with bassist Mats Eilertsen in a dance mapped by invisible choreography. Whatever the extent of the scoring, the performance sounds spontaneous and impossible; Eilertsen is the perfect traveling companion for Simmons' graphite roller coaster ride. "Brainstorm starts as mild precipitation and builds to vivid group improvisation, including unexpected textures from the strings. "Sunset ends the program on a deep blue mood with an unhurried romantic piano solo followed by Simmons exposing his heart.
The very promising first volume of a planned trilogy of releases, The Traveller extends Sonny Simmons' reputation as a master artist.