Free-jazz saxophonist Sonny Simmons talks about playing with the greats | Music Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Free-jazz saxophonist Sonny Simmons talks about playing with the greats

"We'd leave in the morning, have no lunch break or nothing, just staying there in the Englewood forest and playing from morning 'til traffic time that evening."

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Alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons had the distinction of playing with some of the most revered jazz musicians during the 1960s, including multi-reedist Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane's rhythm section, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. As a leader, he recorded two albums for ESP, the imprint that documented the uninhibited side of free jazz. Unlike some of his labelmates, Simmons — who doubled on the English horn — balanced compositions with energetic blowing. Following a period in which he was homeless yet still playing, he re-emerged at the end of the '90s and has recorded prolifically. Simmons' group, Cosmosamatics, comes to the Thunderbird Café on Sat., Sept. 8.


You've been pretty prolific, yet you're best known for your ESP albums. How do you feel about that?

Some recordings you make last a lifetime and they never grow old. The ESP albums — like Staying on the Watch, my first one, is one of those. I do sincerely believe in it.

Was there a network of players that you hung around with at that time in New York?

I was with the best. First, I started with Sonny "Newk" Rollins. He took me to Englewood Cliffs, N.J., back in that period. We'd leave in the morning, have no lunch break or nothing, just staying there in the Englewood forest and playing from morning 'til traffic time that evening. And this cat never would break, man. I was really blown away with him. 'Cause I was worn out, but I kept staring up and show him respect. I was learning a considerable amount from his ability. 

Did you talk much, or just play?

This cat wouldn't say nothing. I said something two hours after we got there in the forest across the George Washington Bridge: "Man, let's take a break and have some lunch." And he looked at me real funny and kept going. I knew I didn't need to say anything anymore. He drove me like a pack of mules.

What was it like playing with Eric Dolphy?

Dolphy was a phenomenal musician, and he treated me like I was his equal. And I was nowhere near, 'round the block. [Laughs] I would go as far as to say this guy was a saint. He had ultimate respect for me. I didn't know that I was playing so well and writing so well back then. So he told me.

You've recorded everything from solo albums to works with orchestras, a lot of it having come out in the past decade. Do have a lot of ideas, or is it because you just want to keep working?

Man, I wish I could work sometimes. Most of the work I get is in Europe. I have to cross the Atlantic to keep my mind balanced and don't go insane and turn into a real drug addict and alcoholic. I've been fighting these passions for years. And I've been doing pretty good.

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