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May 2005

Sonny Simmons
Jewels
Boxholder Records

Sonny Simmons, one of the last surviving free-jazz insurrectionaries from the '60s, is an acquired taste, even for free thinkers within the audience for improvised music. Jewels, a recording made in a private home in 1991 and never released until now, is both less and more accessible than most of Simmons' work. Less, because it belongs to the tiny, highly specialized genre of solo alto saxophone recordings. More, because Simmons' plays here with an orderliness of which few would have believed him willing or capable.

Not that Jewels would make nice background music for your mother's bridge club. Through five originals filling over one hour of music, Simmons' creative process is naked and raw and austere. He starts with simple motives and derives their vast implications with great patience, expanding semiconcentric circles ever outward from the nodes where he began.

Nineteen-minute alto saxophone solos like "Cosmic Funk" require listeners with special, indulgent attention spans. But a particular instrumental sound has always been Simmons' first, riveting impression: It is searing, bright, singing and contains a primal human cry. On Jewels, it is possible to experience that unaccompanied sound with unprecedented intimacy.

The wildly impulsive, fearless nature of his imagination is present, but Simmons exerts shaping control over his spontaneous discoveries. The nearly nine-minute "Caribbean Nights" is a coherent story, for all of its offshoots and digressions, its long, spewing lines and fluttering runs. Along its paths, Simmons uncovers shards and snatches of song like, well, jewels.

Originally published in May 2005
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