In his 45-year career, Sonny Simmons has never recorded with strings and has rarely played anyone's music but his own. One might doubt his ability to function in such a setting, since he is, at 72, a hardcore outcat, inclined more to effusive creative volatility than to discipline. Yet here he is, in Oslo, with a Norwegian rhythm section and a string quartet drawn from the Oslo Philharmonic, playing within the music of Vidar Johansen, who conducts and plays flute.
You have to hear to believe that Simmons is capable of something like "Sunset." Over a soft ballad backdrop brushed in by Anders Aarum's piano and ethereal strings, Simmons' alto saxophone passionately sings, and mostly behaves itself. Granted, "Sunset" is atypical. Johansen's other compositions are more stark and angular, and while Simmons restrains his more chaotic impulses, he generates tension by keeping open the possibility that he might break loose and run wild at any moment. Simmons' tone is still that unmistakable, riveting cry in the wilderness, and the lyricism he espouses within Johansen's specific structures is still gnarled and coarse, but he's purposeful and focused.
The Traveller is one of Simmons' best albums and, happily, is the first in a trilogy on Norway's Jazzaway label.