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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

On the chilly, breezy evening, a large crowd, many arriving on bicycles, converged on the imposing Stadhuis-Muziektheater in Amsterdam for a performance by the Dutch National Ballet. Just a few blocks further along the Oude Schans canal, beneath the illuminated church tower of the Zuiderkerk, the Cosmosamatics played the Bimhuis, Amsterdam’s primary venue for “jazz & improvisatie muziek.” It is impossible to say which crowd had more fun, but it is almost certain that the smaller one at the Bimhuis underwent a hairier, edgier, more transformative experience.

For name recognition reasons, alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons was given top billing at the Bimhuis, but the Cosmosamatics are actually a cooperative ensemble. Multireed instrumentalist Michael Marcus (who played mostly baritone but also saxello and clarinet) and drummer Jay Rosen complete the trio.

Simmons, almost 70, was one of the charter members of the ’60s avant-garde. He made seminal albums on the ESP label, both as a leader and with Prince Lasha, and also recorded with Elvin Jones for Impulse. Then he disappeared from the scene for almost 20 years, resurfacing in the early ’90 s as a fully preserved radical voice from earlier revolutionary times. Simmons has toured intermittently since his return, and recorded semiregularly for labels like CIMP and Boxholder, often with his principal collaborator, Michael Marcus. The Cosmosamatics’ appearance at the Bimhuis was the first of a three-week European tour including stops in France, Belgium and Austria.

Marcus is a full generation younger than Simmons, yet he is the more orderly, measured player in this band. But it is only the contrast with Simmons that makes Marcus, a fluent, fearless adventurer, sound like the voice of reason. Jay Rosen is sufficiently irreverent to belong in this ensemble, but also multifaceted and disciplined enough to serve, by himself, as both rhythm section and orchestral backdrop.

The opener, Simmons’ “New York Mess Around,” set the tone for the evening. Marcus and Simmons played the head in a hollering, careening unison that threatened to fly apart but didn’t. Simmons played English horn with a startling, penetrating, otherworldly braying as Marcus blasted deep on baritone. Simmons switched to alto for his first solo of the night. No one since Eric Dolphy erupts from an ensemble with the drama of Sonny Simmons. He announced himself with a harrowing shriek followed by huge intervallic leaps and runs so fast the myriad notes blurred, followed by fierce blats and expletives, then suddenly a singing melodic discovery, all in a wake-the-dead tone of exhilarating, transfixing nasality.

Marcus provided occasional quick guttural figures behind Simmons as subcommentary. Then after Simmons’ tirade subsided, Marcus’ own solo was wide-ranging, exhaustive and alive with bold decisions, pushing the baritone out of its standard ponderousness into ricochets like pinball shots. Jay Rosen did not so much solo as find himself suddenly alone to carry on his ongoing clattering patterns, interrupted by fusillades, as the center of attention.

Among the current worldwide manifestations of the jazz art form, so many of which, even when inspired and adept, are predictable within their genre, the Cosmosamatics are unique. Both Simmons and Marcus are composers who generate complete (if odd) musical conceptions like Marcus’ “Telergy” and Simmons’ “Avant-Garde Deconstruct.” This night they launched these works in ferocious lock-step theme statements that were hair-raising despite (or perhaps because of) their tightness. When the solos began, hell broke loose, and yet there are touchpoints: when the two horns provided each other with fractured counterpoint, or they came together for interim shattering riffs. The ensemble sound was stark in the absence of any other instruments but Rosen’s drums. Some of the tonalities were also rare, such as the near-classicism of the clarinet and English horn blend on “Cross Roads Out,” or the commanding yet supple sound of Marcus’ saxello on “Thank U Bird.”

The Bimhuis lacks both physical charm and coziness. It feels a little like a large, drafty lecture hall in an old community college. Yet it is a wonderful place to hear jazz. The stage is large, surrounded on three sides by metal bleachers with backs. Behind and above the bleachers are two levels of tables and chairs. Cover prices are reasonable and, with no minimums, you fetch your own cheap drinks from the bar. The sound system and acoustics are good. Most of the musicians who play the Bimhuis are Netherlanders, with names like Joost van Schaijk and Johan Plomp. The March 2003 calendar also includes names like Martial Solal and Louis Hayes and Branford Marsalis.

The Cosmosamatics attracted a diverse crowd to the Bimhuis, most not yet born when Sonny Simmons fired his first shots across the bow in the ’60s, but some old enough to remember when free jazz was new. Their reaction to the evening began with polite curiosity and ended with loud enthusiasm. Taking nothing away from the creative strength of Marcus and Rosen, it was a night defined by Sonny Simmons-survivor, savant, keeper of the flame. His performance was as rough and raw and impulsive as the Jackson Pollock paintings in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, a quick tram ride from the Bimhuis. His solos often started and stopped and started up again with flurries and blasts, searching for an opening, then spattering notes at an idea, like Pollock throwing paint across a canvas. Also like with Pollock canvases, there was no obvious beginning or ending but rather a continuum of process-and then there were sudden revelations, breakthroughs to hard-won, razory, rapturous lyricism. It happened, for example, in the second set, during the evening’s only standard. When, in the convoluted progress of Simmons’ a cappella prologue to “‘Round Midnight,” in the course of trills and fragments and attenuations, Monk’s timeless melody emerged-and it was a rush.

If you go see Sony Simmons, it is likely that, for a while after, your favorite alto player will sound like a Sunday school teacher.

Originally Published