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Friday, February 13, 2015

Sonny Simmons - Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom And Brilliance / Chasing The Bird (Improvising Beings, 2014) ***½

Part II: Chasing the Bird

By Stefan Wood

“Chasing the Bird” is the second half of the massive eight disc box set of “Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom and Brilliance,” almost four and a half hours of drones, sonic textures and electronic abstractions, metal, and blues. Drawing elements from all these genres, Simmons and Julien Palomo conjure a fascinating musical environment.

The first 14 tracks, all untitled, are short works (except for one 14 minute track) that recalls early Tangerine Dream than a typical Simmons free jazz session. Echo chambers, menacing electronics weave in and out meshed with Simmons’ plaintive horn, buzzing, honking, swirling and undulating. There are moments where it sounds like a soundtrack to an early eighties sci fi movie, all sound effects and pulsating motions. Tracks hum like an air conditioner on a hot summer night, or a spaceship drifting into the unknown. Simmons add to these effects with steady and carefully placed moments that move a narrative along, if any, before stopping and moving on to something else. There’s a bit of Stockhausen cut ups as well, cut and paste textures that bleep and blurp with Simmons gluing it all together with his ballad like playing on top. The fourteen minute opus which is the centerpoint of the set, an indescribable mash up of Sun Ra electronics and chants, Phaedra era Tangerine Dream mixed with Goblin, and Stockhausen. There is about five minutes of silence at the end of the track. All in all, an intriguing look into an alternate universe of improvised electronic sound.

“The Breathe of Life” is comprised of four long tracks that continue the explorations of the previous set. Track one begins with an unexpectedly touching vocal by Simmons doing “All the Way” a la Billie Holiday, before the pulsating waves and sheets of sound enter and the listener is blasted off into an Arkestra like electronic space journey. The middle eastern like horn playing returns in track two, a gentle track that just drifts, not doing anything more. Track three is more ambience. Track 4 is a thirty minute opus that starts gentle then builds slowly thoughout, gentleness becoming more insistent, guitars involved this time,creating its on melody, and Simmons purposefully swings thoughout. “Old Lonesome Road” is comprised of three long tracks, none shorter than nineteen minutes, an unusual mixture of blues and progressive space ambient music. It is as if Simmons is playing the blues in front of a synthesized soundscape — not dissimilar to Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. I could imagine Simmons’ music playing in Deckard’s apartment. The length of these tracks form a trance like mood that is at times spellbinding, others tedious. Given such freedom, Simmons and Palomo unshackled just go for it for long stretches, to the point where it is hard to distinguish a beginning, middle or and end. Perhaps that’s the point. But the sheer volume and weight given to all the pieces is exhausting. “We Can Turn Invisible” is such an example of an intriguing set up but it doesn’t really progress; it just exists as a sonic work. “Going Through the Storms” has an epic ballad feel to it; a plaintive tune at the edge of the apocalypse. It is easily the stand out track of the bunch, especially with Simmons singing towards the end, like Junior Kimbrough’s over his deadly blues riffs. “Worlds of World of Worlds Of” concludes the set with two 19+ minute tracks of very deliberate and patient soundscapes that move slowly but one can hear the subtle structural shifts of tempo and mode, as in “To Change the Harmonic Structure.” “Dead Years Ago, Million Years” is a moody, downbeat conclusion, dreary at times but when Simmons begins to play, he brings some hope and optimism to the piece, and towards the end it leads towards a positive outlook and feel.

It is safe to say that this project could not be endorsed by any established record company, and thanks to the internet, and artist can indulge and explore in manners that could not be financially positive even a few years ago, without some forward thinking benefactors. This set is available through Bandcamp, where one can get a sample of this magnum opus. It’s a fascinating document; a set where an established artist in the music scene just releases himself from any preconceptions of himself and genre, and jumps off into the unknown. It should be applauded, and for that it gets my recommendation. Not everything works, but that’s not the point. It’s the effort and the attempts that are intriguing.