The Cosmosamatics in Poland
October 3, 2006
In the mid-1960s, when Louisiana-born saxophonist, Sonny Simmons was probably at his most influential, a succession of important jazz musicians converged on a club in Krakow, Poland called the Helikon. Some of the younger musicians developed an ebullient, devil-may-care attitude and style that drew a great deal from the free jazz experiments taking place across the Atlantic. The communist authorities were not amused, especially when some of the regulars at the club, such as trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist, Janusz Muniak, dared to carry their alarming message further afield, flaunting their talents to great acclaim around northern and central Europe. The counter-reaction was ruthless but effective. The club lost its licence.
Some of these early experimentalists feel that they have been unjustly accused by association of laying the foundations for the horde of talentless so-called acolytes who honk and screech their way through a set without bothering to learn the changes or master their instruments. Janusz Muniak in particular is very keen to disassociate himself from the young pretenders, telling me in a recent conversation that the avant-garde "creates a mess and there's no one to clear up afterwards". He has long since abandoned the spontaneously improvised sets that characterized his playing with Stanko in the sixties, but the photograph of Sonny Simmons that hangs near the entrance of U Muniaka, the jazz club he owns in Krakow, reminds his customers that he paid his dues in the outer reaches.
Interestingly, Sonny Simmons is just as keen as Muniak to distance himself from free jazz, claiming in a recent interview that he is 'affiliated' even though he hates the avant-garde. Fortunate enough to spend his adolescence in Oakland, California, he was able to combine a meticulous practice regime with firsthand experience of touring jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. It is unsurprising, therefore, that he has chosen to collaborate on so many occasions with reedsman and composer Michael Marcus, whose moments of free expression are underpinned by an exemplary technique and firm sense of the tradition. With the addition of bass and drums, they make up The Cosmosamatics. Since their formation, they have recorded seven albums and toured Europe several times. I was fortunate enough to catch them in Alchemia, the club where they recorded five of the tracks that made it onto their last album,The Zetrons (2005, Not Two Records).
Sonny Simmons is a talented and entertaining self-publicist. The myth precedes the man, so its difficult to know what to expect when seeing him for the first time. An embittered howl of outrage against the circumstances that for several years saw him busking on the streets of San Francisco, a desperate victim of substance abuseA rejuvenated old master enjoying the chance to embark on a second careerMaybe, even a missing link between Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins (as he himself has hinted).
Michael Marcus is less of an enigma. His blues-drenched tenor and exotic clarinet are a perfect foil for Simmons' impassioned alto and mysterious English horn. In addition to their mystical inclinations (the name of the band speaks for itself), they are united by an interest in tonal textures. Both readily employ multiphonics and are never afraid to explore the upper range of their instruments. Although they occasionally teeter on the edge of complete freedom, they never lose touch with the sense of structure and form that is so apparent in their compositions. The breadth of their understanding is accentuated when they urge each other on, offering affirmative statements and implied vocalizations under each other's solos, varying from simple riffs ("Go on, man! ) to the dolphin noises and gurgling laughter that Simmons conjured up during a number with a nautical theme.
Stylistically, however, there are some noticeable differences. It was certainly no surprise to discover that Michael Marcus started off us a harmonica player as he intersperses the bustling runs that often frame his tenor solos with wailing blues statements that sound surprisingly fresh and relevant. His whimsical clarinet playing is sometimes reminiscent of Jimmy Hamilton's contributions to Duke Ellington's Far East Suite.
Simmons clearly shares Ornette Coleman's fascination with melodic development and Eric Dolphy's penchant for huge interval leaps and tonally-ambiguous long notes, but he is very much his own man. He has a fascinating tendency to reach for simple motives or defining intervals, wrestling with them like a dog with a bone, and sucking them dry before spitting them out, and moving on. His acerbic tone is punctuated by bird-like trills and, like Coleman, he continues to play with a youthful vigour.