Sonny Simmons and Delphine Latil

Symphony of the Peacocks
Improvising Beings ib04

By Ken Waxman

Symphony of the Peacocks may be the oddest entry in the discography of reedist Sonny Simmons, who has been recording for about half a century. It’s not that he plays English horn as well as alto saxophone here or even that at one point he sings. This CD is unique because the only accompaniment for Simmons’ playing is the concert harp of Delphine Latil. A graduate of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris who usually plays in chamber music and orchestral circumstances, the 23-year-old harpist adapts her style to follow 75-year-old Simmons’ eccentric soloing. Still this May-December – perhaps February-December would be more appropriate – musical pairing seems to work most of the time.

Switching between his two instruments on nearly every track, with a suggestion that their simultaneous audibility may be overdubbed, Simmons’ timbre control and harmonized trilling confirm that he was never an all-out Energy Music player. Framing his nasal horn forays and irregularly trilled saxophone cries in layers of glissandi and premeditated plucks, stops and vibrations, Latil creates a gorgeously lyrical setting for the tunes. She also avoids exaggerated glissandi associated with mood music and at point pushes the instrument with pinched strings into strident kora-like or guzheng-like affiliations.

One place this strategy almost falls apart is on “The Blues of What It Is”, when Simmons starts singing a country blues. While his voice isn’t unpleasant, the incongruity of attempting to back up a rural song with the timbres of an instrument favored by affluent European courts is painfully obvious. There are reasons why when rambling from town to town Lightnin’ Hopkins or Big Joe Williams didn’t pack even a portable 34-string harp. Simmons’ subsequent alto saxophone solo provides the blues feeling missing elsewhere.

While outstanding in its distinctiveness, the CD will probably remain an anomaly in Simmons’ career. The reedist sounds best improvising with seasoned players, while if Latil wants to continue her flirtation with free music, there are other musicians, many in France, some with extensive so-called classical training, who may be better partners.

Tracks: Beauty from Long Ago; Emeralds and Sapphires Rejoice; The Blues of What It Is; Blue Maze; Le Ruby of the East

Personnel: Sonny Simmons: English horn and alto saxophone; Delphine Latil: harp

—For New York City Jazz Record June 2011