Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sonny Simmons with Barbara Donald-Reincarnation; Arhoolie Records #551, 2015

A friend of Disaster Amnesiac who is somewhat in the know regarding American Master Jazz Musician Sonny Simmons has recently told me that Mr. Simmons is in pretty bad shape, unable to move his arms apparently. Thankfully, Sonny has a permanent roof over his head during this ordeal, but, man, it feels tragic to hear this news. Thankfully for astute Jazz listeners, there are discs such as Reincarnation, an absolute smoker of a live recording that captures the Man, rippin' and runnin' during a prime period of his playing life. I recently grabbed a copy at Arhoolie Records' home base in El Cerrito, and its sounds have been bouncing me into the kind of delights that one gets from seriously great Jazz.
Reincarnation starts off with American Jungle Theme, in which the quartet, featuring Simmons' former spouse Barbara Donald on trumpet, his son Zarak Simmons on drums, pianist Travis Shook, and bass player Court Crawford. The tune's opening theme, a crisp, Bop-ish line, sends Sonny off into an incredible extended solo to start. His complete control of the alto sax is on full display as he crisply rips through it, pushed by the intensity of Zarak's polyrhythms and Shook's modal comping on the piano. Donald answers with her own, somewhat shorter but equally intense passages on trumpet, with her son Zarak shifting the rhythms just ever so slightly, enough to provide great contrast while keep the overall energetic feel the same. His time spent studying with Elvin Jones and Tony Williams really clearly shows, but when the group gets down to piano/bass/drums interplay before restating the head, his individuality is readily apparent.
The title track, up next, is familiar to Disaster Amnesiac from 1994's Ancient Ritual (still got the cassette!) and fascinating in this live set, as Shook rounds out the sound during the head, filling out the theme before Sonny takes another turn, one which is full of fast runs, all colored by his deep knowledge of Blues and Jazz. He may be the last living connection to Charlie Parker, seriously, save perhaps Bobby Bradford and surely not many others. Listen and study and learn my friends. Sonny Simmons kicks the REAL. Crawford plays great, melting notes within the rhythmic matrix here. Barbara Donald kicks in next with a flying trumpet solo, right out of Sonny's statements. It mirrors his solo with its fast and high energies, keeping things going as Zarak continues to romp with Shook. Crawford does a great solo of pizzicato high notes before handing it off to the piano, whence this tight rhythm sections mixes solidly, all three members bouncing ideas off of each other before Donald and Sonny trade 8's and everyone goes back to the head.
Sonny shows his strong familiarity with standards on Body and Soul. He starts off sweet before branching out into more of that great alto sax abstraction, stretching out from the tune's changes as the piano/bass/drums section plays it cool behind him.  Shook follows with a pretty solo, during which Zarak pops and swings with his great brush technique. This relatively short number is rounded out by a quick statement from Court before the alto flares back in for the tune's head is stated again.
Barbara Donald comes back to the fold for Ancient Ritual, another hard swinging odyssey on Reincarnation. This track gets all kind of heavy trance moves from the thick, tight playing of the rhythm section as Sonny plays an extended solo. He moves from mid to low to high registers and just speaks for bar after bar of warm, sublime ruminations on his axe. Zarak chugs and rolls underneath all of the action of his fathers playing; it's quite audible that they're in serious sync. Wherever father goes, son follows, and vice versa. Piano and bass emerge from within the tom tom maelstrom always present but wisely laying down more simple tapestries for the alto and drums to emerge from. Again we find Barbara starting right on key in continuation of Sonny's solo. Her playing is punctuated by some dramatically sparse moments that are pushed by more great tom tom rolling from Zarak. The notes wave into the winds of the band and then burble out the perfect time, making way for Crawford's higher register bass notes. Zarak steps up with some playing that reminds Disaster Amnesiac of Art Blakey at his most tribal or Tony Williams at his loosest, with melodies flying from his drums. Oh how the room of Barb's BBQ in Olympia WA must have reverberated that evening! The quintet plays the head with a brief coda, lead again by Zarak to its conclusion. The slight applause at here is kind of heartbreaking to me. Did this audience realize the magic that they were privy to?
The CD closes with a lovely version of Over the Rainbow. Donald plays around with the melody in really sweet ways. Her solo has almost brought tears to this listener's eyes, what with its emotional depth. The emotions shown: sadness, elation, optimism, sorry.....they're all in it. Travis lays into some lovely melodic piano playing, notable also for its insights into the harmony of this old tune as well. It sounds very much as if he's familiar with it at a deep level, a level he brings out. The trumpet returns, as if especially inspired, going to high notes and trills above the brushing latticework of the drums. There's a point on this track wherein it feels as though they could play into infinity, but soon they restate the head with even more of that Blues-ey sadness at parting, and stop. Over the Rainbow has always been a song that expresses such depth of longing, and these four musicians bring that with incredible depth.
As stated, Sonny Simmons is, apparently, in pretty rough shape. Disaster Amnesiac hopes that he is receiving physical comfort for his ailment. Thank you, Sonny Simmons, for sharing your vision with the music loving public. And thank you, Ahroolie, for making Reincarnation available to us. This here is the GOOD STUFF, and we're lucky to have it. Dig.

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