Album Reviews

Sonny Simmons with Barbara Donald


Artist:     Sonny Simmons with Barbara Donald

Album:     Reincarnation

Label:     Arhoolie

Release Date:     10/19/2015


This live recording from 1991 captures one of the most unusual musical families in jazz, or any genre, for that matter. Sonny Simmons is a pioneering, avant-garde oriented alto saxophonist who plays in a similar style to tenors John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Like them, he has recorded with Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner. Among his outstanding recordings is 1997’s American Jungle, the title track of which is performed here live along with four other lengthy cuts, accompanied by his wife, trumpeter Barbara Donald, and their son, drummer Zarak Simmons.

Known as “Trumpet Lady,” Barbara has a style that is very compatible with Sonny’s fiery approach. To me it’s reminiscent of the playing of Woody Shaw or Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson. Certainly it is unusual to see a white woman trumpet player alongside her African-American husband. Add to that the Elvin-Jones like drumming of son, Zarak, who seems to push both of them to absolutely inspired levels of improvisation. You can certainly tell that Zarak was mentored by Jones and Tony Williams. His drumming, which is set prominently in the mix, is the real stunning surprise of this album for me. Sadly, this may be the only recording of the whole Simmons/Donald family playing together. Barbara passed away at the age of 70 in 2013, so we need to savor this brilliant performance recorded at Barb’s BBQ in Olympia, Washington.

Joined by his long-time pianist, Trevor Shook, and bassist Court Crawford, the quintet plays at brisk tempos for “American Jungle Theme,” “Reincarnation” and “Ancient Ritual” while delivering gorgeous tones on the classic ballads “Body and Soul” and “Over the Rainbow.” The latter features just Barbara Donald who delivers an imaginative, beautifully rendered version of one of my all-time favorite tunes. So, if you’re yearning for that sixties jazz sound that is on the more accessible side of the avant-garde, definitely pick this up. Dig in and marvel at the joy, the power, and the connectivity between the musicians.

– Jim Hynes

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