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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Staying On the Watch by Sonny Simmons

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

We continue our salute to the elder statesmen of free jazz in America.

Reedman Sonny Simmons and his then-wife, trumpeter Barbara Donald, laid some stunningly hip vibrations on the jazz cognoscenti in the mid 60s. Staying On the Watch is the first album recorded under his own name. Huey "Sonny" Simmons had been playing with Eric Dolphy, Prince Lasha, and Charles Mingus prior to arriving at his style of approach.

While John Coltrane was experimenting within the standard jazz structure that could be characterized as head-solos-head, Simmons wrote highly imaginative suites: head-solo-head-solo-head-solo-head, etc. Instead of Trane's modal (trance-like) sorties, Simmons and Donald celebrated their bop backgrounds with bouncy, ebullient declarations, followed by mind-bending deconstructions as uninhibited as you will hear within the annals of free jazz, yet completely coherent and musical.

Simmons, in his 70s, is still playing, though there were many years of homelessness--he made his money playing on the street--before his resurfacing in the 90s. He has recorded prolifically since. Donald recorded a couple fine LPs on Cadence Records, but reportedly had to give up playing for health reasons. Barbara Donald is not only the finest woman jazz trumpeter America has produced, she is one of the finest jazz trumpeters of all time. 

Listen to City of David to hear Sonny and Barbara's tight ensemble playing and the way these cats fearlessly performed their solos:

A Distant Voice shows a very different side of Simmons. Bassist Teddy Smith takes up his bow and Simmons blows slow and haunting in a duet that never fails to take me on a journey. At one point, Sonny's horn goes into a Spanish Flamenco-cum-Balkan flourish:

Hats off to these pioneers of American music!