Monday, March 8, 2010

Are There Two Sonny Simmons Musics? Why it Doesn't Matter.

I've read some journalism that says in essence, "the early Sonny Simmons music is great; the later incarnations aren't especially wonderful." Sonny made some excellent recordings for Contemporary, ESP, etc., from the early-to-late '60s in the "new thing" mode of modern jazz, then more or less dropped out of sight for a number of years. He returned and has made a good number of recordings from to '90s on. I haven't heard them all, but I certainly have sampled a good cross-section.

Today's recording perhaps is as good as any to look at Sonny Simmons in his second phase. It's a live trio session recorded at the Knitting Factory for the 2001 Visions Festival. Live at Knitting Factory is one of those well-conceived download only Ayler Records releases, and it's available at a budget price from their site. The sound is quite decent.

We have 40 minutes of live Sonny on alto with the good music lineup of Cameron Brown on bass and Ronny Barrage on drums. There are lively free barn-stormers and a tongue-in-cheek rap-funk number.

Is this music the same as what's on his first recordings? No, certainly not. It shows that Sonny has emerged into the current scene with the music world around him giving him some interlocking feedback. He reflects 2001 like any creative artist. This live session may be somewhat more offhand than some of his more ambitiously constructed sessions of earlier years. It's a free blowing trio date though, and so one must hear it in that light. The song forms are frameworks, not highly evolved compositional vehicles.

His playing is quite good. And the Barrage-Cameron rhythm section blazes and urges him on.

Is it the same Sonny as the 1960's Sonny? How could it be? It's Sonny in 2001. A different Sonny in some ways, but no less Sonny. It's important, if a little obvious, to realize that the old Sonny is still there to be appreciated, in the recordings. The new Sonny does not negate the old one. If one does not compare but enjoys his later work on its own terms, one cannot but appreciate it.

Is the Knitting Factory recording the best thing he's ever done? No. Most definitely not. It does give you another side of this important creative artist. Perhaps a little more casual, but nonetheless engaging. New Sonny to old Sonny is like New Hawk to old Hawk, new Lester Young to old Lester Young, new Rollins to old Rollins (admittedly, one might want to pick and chose carefully in the latter instance). Each period has something to offer. Forget expectations and just listen.

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