Sonny Simmons / Marion Brown
The Complete ESP Disk Recordings / Marion Brown

this is black music,” said an indefatigable Charles Gayle, pulling a reed from his mouth, and moving it into his saxophone’s mouthpiece.

A sort of introduction to a piece that was sort of an introduction to Gayle himself, the saxophonist blew hard, and heavy, and nearly 30 minutes long, while legendary drummer, Sunny Murray, splashed cymbals and thudded skins; bassist William Parker hunkered in the corner, sawing microtones into several piles of tonal timber, sweat rolling off his brow.

Parker had played on Gayle’s titanic Touchin’ on Trane, released in 1993 by German Jazz label, FMP. Touchin’ blends late 60’s “fire music” with bop sensibility. Even though Gayle’s going out of his head on nearly every track, late-period Coltrane drummer, Rashied Ali, eschews his preferred “pulse” drumming for a percolating swing, empowering Gayle, and allowing even Parker to remove himself from the shackles which serve the traditional rhythm section’s master. Lest we forget, this is all about freedom.

Admittedly, Gayle’s pre-piece qualifier appeared strange: Of course this was “black” music; it’s an inherently black idiom. Even stranger was coupling the qualifier with the crowd: White, uptown, privileged—this could have been a Goddamned Pavement show.

Joseph Chonto’s liner notes for Touchin’ didn’t just touch on ‘trane; they touched on racism, spiritual unity, “wholeness,” and the stubborn fact that the American Gayle—playing within a genre that Europeans have touted as America’s only contribution to the arts—had never been asked to record for an American record label.

“I’ve played with him,” said picker/ranter/humorist and writer Eugene Chadbourne of Gayle. “He told me he’s playing black music for black people; I told him to look around at his shows; there are no black people there.”

Anomaly?—Hardly. As often as critics dispatch the adjectival hedger of hedging, “difficult,” as in “difficult music,” it certainly, and comfortably finds appropriate usage in regard to Gayle, or Brown, or Simmons. Not to say that “blacks” in the 60s—and 00s—weren’t crowding the crowd at Slug’s Saloon, or the Knitting Factory, or The Cooler, seeing and hearing Gayle, Brown, and Simmons. But, this overtly political, technical, soulful, and nearly always intuitively rendered music isn’t something to sip fucking soup to. Which is why one’s got to dig through mail-order services, and foreign magazine minutiae to glean good recordings, passable interviews – anything of substance.

Revamped ESP Disk, however, is making it easier for whites and blacks alike to delve into difficult musics with its reissues; and these two, while not the crown jewels, make fine dome-ware in and of themselves.

Brown’s band, augmented by the aforementioned Ali, is loose but sensitive, carefully selecting pathways and path partners. All four tracks, save for the under four-minutes “27 Cooper Station,” are long, meandering pieces that stay within the head/first solo/second solo/third solo/head/conclusion formula, with the bandleader sounding more like a disciple of Ornette Coleman than the sanguine player that he was to become by the time the pugilistic pairing with Dutch madmen Bennink and Altena yielded ‘67’s Porto Novo.

Throughout this disc, Brown’s alto mostly refuses to climb into the upper register, instead choosing to converse in low mumbles, occasionally gurgling and hiccoughing in a corner while others move to the forefront. Ali is the real standout here, repeatedly heating up small fills on toms and cymbals until they burst blackly like overcooked kernels of corn.

Those having heard Porto Novo will be unwilling to have Brown articulate his music no differently than he somnambulates. And while Brown has made some truly extraordinary records—see Afternoon of a Georgia Faun; Duets, and the aforementioned Porto Novo—this reissue is not one of them.

Sonny Simmons’ collected ESP recordings, however, bring together Simmons’ best, binding Staying the Watch and Music of the Spheres together with the thin threads of an interview comprised of mostly moth-eaten exegesis, and Simmons’ clumsy insistence in calling an instrument an “appliance.” Cut it off as soon as his voice comes to the air, because this badass from Sicily Island, Louisiana sets shit on fire and leaves his bandmates’ soft-soled shoes to stamp it out.

Simmons grew up on Count Basie and Duke Ellington—and it shows. His approach to jazz is completely at odds with Brown’s. Simmons, notoriously antisocial, will surprise even the staunchest skeptic with these highly communicative pieces that marry the best qualities of hard bop with the “new found” freedom of late-60’s jazz.

Often times, Simmons’ band sounds remarkably like the traditional Coltrane quartet, with pianist John Hicks riffing off propulsive drummer, James Zitro. Hicks is a fucking juggernaut: Keys are pounded, and massaged into shape. Zitro smacks cymbals and unrelentingly cracks at his snare while Simmons soars over the top, his sax a drunken Doppler effect, blaring and bleeping in cautionary spasms. Yet, any bit of chaos present is quickly contained: horns staccato right in place with abrupt snare stabs; the bass’ baritone snores are awakened with cacophonous cymbal crashes, and again Simmons stays in the front, his blowing undauntedly fierce in the face of notational constraints.

Some pieces come off as mere experiments, looking towards the Carl Stalling riffage that John Zorn’s Masada is wont to engage in. Others offer subtle, almost ethnic takes on modal jazz, with undulating horns, quiet keys and bass, and brushed drums sounding like a fat man’s things rubbing against one another through thick canvas slacks. More than a few times, one thankfully gets Simmons unleashed: His tenor’s brass bell farting out a thick wailing smoke.

The energy exerted on both of these documents is staggering. More staggering, though, is how critical pens have successfully marginalized this “difficult music” by calling it such. “Difficult,” “black,” “political,” “intuitive,” “spiritual” or “racist.” Free jazz of this stripe is to be held tightly, and blared into the ears, regardless of their color. Open up.

Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2005-09-23
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