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Norman Simmons: The Art of Norman Simmons

Norman Simmons’ record credits stretch back to a 1956 trio date for Argo and subsequent recordings with Carmen McRae, whom he accompanied for several years in the ’60s, and with Betty Carter and Anita O’Day in the ’70s. In fact, it’s his sought-after ability as an accompanist that has rendered him practically invisible. Now 71, Simmons got his start in Chicago where, in the ’50s, he was the house pianist at the Bee Hive Lounge backing up such notables as Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. He also worked with Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and a host of other Windy City players before moving to New York in ’58. For the past 20 years he was Joe Williams’ accompanist and musical director.

Simmons is a marvelous interpreter as well as a compelling composer and his “Joe,” a cheery ballad written in honor of Williams, features sensitive solos from Simmons, tenorman Eric Alexander and guitarist Henry Johnson, another Williams associate. There’s a lot of connectivity among these musicians-including bassist Paul West and drummer Paul Wells-and it certainly shows in their empathetic interplay. Besides the jaunty blues that starts things off, other Simmons originals include the boppish “Stiffed,” with a series of intriguing ensemble riffs that serve to accent the action-a device Simmons also employs to good effect on “There Are Such Things” and his own relaxed “6 a.m.”

The choice of standards reveals Simmons’ fondness for harmonically rich material. “My Silent Love” and “The Hour of Parting” get exceptional interpretations. “Harlem Nocturne” (at 12:07) is the centerpiece of the disc, and gives both Alexander (a terrific full-bodied player who excels at any tempo) and Johnson (who seamlessly melds single-string lines with octave runs) a chance to move the music a bit out of the mainstream.

As someone observed, a great record can be played in the background without disturbing you and can also be played in the foreground without boring you. This is one of the greats.

Originally Published