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Sonny Simmons - Staying On The Watch (1966) [Obscure Jazz Safari]

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A Séance For Eric Dolphy
If I rated free jazz records solely on their cover art, Staying On The Watch would be in my top 5. Young avant-saxman Sonny Simmons is firing on all cylinders as he explores everything 'The New Thing' had to offer.

Like many of his contemporaries, Simmons' approach to the avant-garde is rooted in tradition. The goofy melodies bookending each track provide a tangible frame of reference for wild maelstroms of improvisation.


Opener Metamorphosis ignites with cluttered horn stabs, slingshotting the group toward high-octane sonic deconstruction. Sonny's saxophone screeches attempt a séance with Eric Dolphy while John Hicks rounds things out by beating his piano into submission.

Elsewhere, City of David flaunts distinctly Eastern melodies while Interplanetary Travelers pushes a stripped back trio to their limits. The group's playing evolves at breakneck speed, soloist and accompaniment constantly threatening to collide. Free jazz is characterised by this volatility, mutating simple composition into a unique showcase of the band's creativity.

Sonny's lightning pace can make each tune feel like a race to the finish, and that's a good thing. The constant intensity leaves no room for chordal academia or directionless squawking. Trumpeter Barbara Donald shares a similar approach, her frantic overblowing never without purpose and direction. However chaotic the ensemble becomes, they're always going somewhere new.

Except for on A Distant Voice, a solemn duet pairing Simmons with bassist Teddy Smith for meditative ruminations on Eastern scales. Surrounded by dischordant blowouts it's a tad underwhelming, yet still manages to act as a moment of welcome spiritual respite.

Though I do have one strange complaint about Standing On The Watch, particularly its bass solos. While Smith's playing is superb, his extended sections are naturally much quieter than their surroundings. Every one of Teddy's solos ends with a deafening blast of horns about five times louder than bass alone. My first few listens to this album were marred by jump-scares and ear pain, watch out kids.

So that's Staying On The Watch, a piece of the early avant-garde that's every bit as awesome as its cover would have you believe. It's also fairly accessible for free jazz. Wildly forward-thinking in 1966 sure, but Sonny's jamming isn't worlds away from the angular complexity of Jackie McLean or Andrew Hill's densely composed post-bop from around this time.

Sick of treating experimental jazz like high art? Blast Staying On The Watch and become a one-man atonal mosh pit. It's what Sonny would have wanted.

9/10


 

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