Sunday, June 15, 2008

Way more than a Few: Bobby Few and Sonny Simmons live in Philly, 6/14/08

Had the immense pleasure of hearing Sonny Simmons and Bobby Few perform as a duo last night as part of Ars Nova Workshop. Setting was impossibly elegant: Third floor of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, like an early-20th-century salon at some beautiful old library. You can tell it's mostly chamber music they put on there but this was something more electrifying.

Few and Simmons were about a half hour late going on. Simmons strode out and made instant amends with a typoically charming, semirakish banter/apology (his is the kind of sly, good-natured humility that you can't stay, or even get, mad at). They launched right into what I assume was an original piece, the only one on a program made up mostly of standards.

But these had to've been the free-est, most gut-busting standards I've ever heard, the epitome of that jazz phenomenon--*the* jazz phenomenon in a lot of ways--where the pieces are internalized so completely that it seems as though the musicians are just speaking passionately about topics dear to them. We got a soaring, brilliantly ornamented "Round Midnight"; an immensely ballsy, grinding blues that Simmons announced as a Nat King Cole tune; a "Night in Tunisia" that seared despite its moderate tempo; and--get this--a concluding version of "It Was a Very Good Year"--kicked off by an endearingly amateurish, yet totally commanding, Simmons vocal--that made the Sinatra (via Ervin Drake) chestnut seem like maybe the most poignant and profound melody ever.

Really what it was about for me, though, was simply drinking in the sounds these players were throwing down, sounds I'd internalized and held close to my heart for years via records. I'd seen Simmons live once before--as a guest with reedist Brandon Evans's group in the basement of CBGB--but he seemed to be in a bad way that night and sat out for most of the set. Tonight, it was like 1966 all over again: I'm not kidding when I feel as though this gave me some taste of what it must've been like to hear Eric Dolphy (one of Simmons's most beloved inspirations, to judge by his frequent dedication pieces) live. Simmons's speed is demonic, his passion furious. He plays turbobop, bubbling off a scorching run and then swooping upward in these breathtaking hawklike runs, culminating in a tart, alarmingly urgent upper register that sounds like a complacency-wrecking alarm.

Few was there, so there, when Simmons was playing, but you wouldn't have even noticed. And this is meant in the best possible sense, the sense relating to a *true* accompanist. Playing alongside Simmons, Few disappeared--as he's done with Booker Ervin, Albert Ayler, Noah Howard, Steve Lacy and many others over his four-decade-plus career (check out my Destination Out Few mixtape for some context)--serving not so much as another player but as a platform, a gilded pillow for the saxist to perch on.

When he was left alone, it was like an intimate romance between Few and the instrument. All these metaphors I'm using seem silly to me, but they're the only verbal devices that fit. Few was straight-up massaging the piano. He is all over the thing at all times, coaxing the melody out and swathing it in radiant hues. Hearing him live is like a mist, a balm, a bath, or being draped in some kind of luxurious robe. It's a sense of warmth and abundance of sound that I've never experienced before hearing a pianist live. (To say nothing of those daredevil full- or half-keyboard slides, the most tasteful and marvelously controlled I've seen, like the heavenly, majestic version of Jerry Lee Lewis...)

It took these two veterans years and years to find each other, but damn, I'm glad they did. As hinted at in my D:O post, there is a new duo CD, True Wind, available via Simmons's private label, Hello World!. It's a limited edition, so go, now. God, what a phenomenal show this was...

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