August 24, 2000
Arhoolie CD 483
So-called free jazz has finally been around long enough to be acknowledged as an important style that can be drawn on by many contemporary performers. Despite the best efforts of the neo-cons to try to nullify its lineage and existence, important sessions like this one keep being reissued.
MANHATTAN EGOS is an excellent sound picture of that little documented time following the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and before the resurgence of free music with folk like John Zorn and William Parker. It proves once again that the line against fuzzy fusion and mirror image retrobop was being held not only in New York and Europe, but also in outposts like Berkeley, Calif. by the likes of Sonny Simmons.
Simmons, one of the music's great wandering bards, is probably best known for the two ESP disks he made in the mid-1960s in New York. He had recorded in his home state of California before that and after a long period of silence, literally playing on San Francisco streets, is back recording again, sounding much as he did here.
What that means is that his accelerating alto saxophone thrusts define the shape of the music, hurtling it forward at all times. His then-wife Donald, plays Don Cherry to his Ornette Coleman, bringing a prickly brassiness to her solos on anthematic pieces like "Visions" and "The Prober". The only change of pace comes on "Seven Dances of Salome", a piece of semi-exotica like Trane's "Kule Se Mama". Very much of its time, the tune is piloted by twin conga drums and some hoodoo chanting, but it does expose Simmons' little-recorded, singular English horn stylings.
In retrospect the first part of the CD begins to sound like a bebop jam when compared to the final four tunes. Recorded live in concert a few months later and featuring a different rhythm section, sparked by propulsive percussionist Marshall and a bass so over-amplified it sounds electric, Simmons' front-line partner is White, another less-than-famous modern West Coaster.
Usually featured in more straightahead contexts, White — who has "Divine Magnet" all to himself — manages to be almost as complimentary to the saxophonist as Donald was earlier. That's no mean feat, considering that Simmons is all over the reed and keys and plays in many registers and different speeds. But listen to the excitement building during White's solo on "Purple Rays".
Viewed as a whole, this CD is not only a fine piece of under-documented history, but an exceptional musical session as well.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Coltrane In Paradise 2. The Prober 3. Manhattan Egos 4. Seven Dances Of Salome 5. Visions 6. Beings of Light 7. Purple Rays 8. Divine Magnet 9. The Beauty of Ibis
Personnel: Barbara Donald (trumpet) *; Sonny Simmons (alto saxophone, English horn); Michael White (violin) +; Juma (bass, conga drums)*; Kenny Jenkins (bass) +; Paul Smith * or Eddie Marshall + (drums); Voodoo Bembe (conga drums)^
*tracks 1-3, 5 only; + tracks 6-9 only; ^ track 4 only