Sonny Simmons

Staying on the Watch

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Staying on the Watch Review

by Alex Henderson

Sonny Simmons, whose work with flutist Prince Lasha had put him on the map in West Coast avant-garde jazz circles, had an important year in 1966. That was the year the alto saxophonist recorded Staying on the Watch, his first album as a full-fledged leader; Lasha and Simmons had been co-leaders on 1962's The Cry!, but on this session, Simmons is the only one in the driver's seat. Not surprisingly, Simmons recorded Staying on the Watch for ESP-Disk, which reissued the album on CD in 2010. ESP's reputation for being cutting-edge is well deserved -- while Impulse! could be quite daring where experimental jazz was concerned, ESP was downright fearless -- and Simmons' playing is delightfully uninhibited and free-spirited on four original compositions: "Metamorphosis," "A Distance Voice," "City of David," and "Interplanetary Travelers." That isn't to say that Staying on the Watch is an exercise in atonal chaos; Simmons' performances aren't as extreme as the free jazz that John Coltrane was offering in 1966. This is inside/outside playing (more outside than inside) rather than absolute atonality from start to finish. But even so, there is a lot of intensity coming from Simmons and the four musicians who form an acoustic quintet with him: trumpeter Barbara Donald (Simmons' wife at the time), pianist John Hicks, bassist Teddy Smith, and percussionist Marvin Pattillo. Density prevails on Staying on the Watch, and density is the thing that can make one avant-garde jazz recording a lot more jarring than another. If one compares Staying on the Watch to AACM icon and fellow altoist Roscoe Mitchell's Sound -- another historic avant-garde album that was recorded in 1966 -- it isn't hard to see why this 44-minute CD is more intense. For all its abstraction, the innovative and highly influential Sound emphasized the use of space and was a departure from the density that had characterized so much avant-garde jazz in the early to mid-‘60s. Simmons and Mitchell were alto explorers who had two different left-of-center visions in 1966, one just as valid as the other -- and Simmons' recording career as a leader was off to an exciting start with Staying on the Watch.

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