Mark Simmonds 'Fire' tribute
Thu Feb 03 2022 at 08:00 pm
616-620 Harris St, Ultimo NSW 2007, Australia | Sydney, NS
AdvertisementIt is almost 30 years since the release of the Mark Simmonds Freeboppers album 'Fire' in 1993 on Birdland records, with Simon Barker, Scott Tinkler and Steve Elphick. The music on this album is just stunning and won an Aria award in 1995. Sadly Mark passed away in 2020, but our thoughts will be with him as we play this masterpiece in full.
With Matt Ottignon on tenor, Tom Avgenicos on trumpet, Jonathan Zwartz on bass and James Hauptmann on drums.
The following is John Shand's beautifully written SMH article on Mark.
You'd look around the room and the see the other faces, blanched and wide-eyed, as though subjected to extreme G-forces. The sound of the saxophone, so overwhelming it seemed to hit you with the force of a shockwave, combined with the torrential emotions being conveyed to make a perfect musical storm.
This was a typical concert by Mark Simmonds, perhaps the most potent musician Australia has produced on any instrument in any idiom or era, and one of the world's key tenor saxophonists of the past 45 years.
Simmonds poured every atom of himself into each solo, and the effect across a concert was cumulative, leaving people both traumatised and exhilarated by music that was variously furious, wildly celebratory and devastatingly sad. It was also cumulative in its effect on Simmonds himself.
Simmonds, who has died after prolonged ill health, was born in Christchurch on July 21, 1955, the second son of Jean and Robert Simmonds. His father ran a commercial cleaning company and his mother was a landscape painter. Music pervaded the family, with Robert playing trumpet, Mark's brother, Derek, playing bagpipes and guitar, and Jean's nephews being the Brodie Brothers, a successful 1960s pop act.
When Mark was four, the family moved to Sydney, where Robert's business took on cleaning Sydney's early skyscrapers. Mark attended Neutral Bay Primary School for some six months before going to Burnside Primary when the family returned to Christchurch. In 1966, they relocated to Sydney permanently, with Mark going to Northbridge Primary School and then North Sydney Boys' High, where he began studying music.
Influenced by his brother's love of blues, Mark's first instrument was the guitar, which he also studied classically. By 15, he had a job at Palings music store and there discovered transcriptions of songs by such blues figures as Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, and had learned about 100 pieces before hearing the originals, such records being rare and expensive.
At high school, he fell in love with early New Orleans jazz, collecting countless 78rpm records and taking up trumpet and then trombone. More by accident than design, he started at the roots of the tradition and worked his way forward, giving him a singular grounding.
In his blues phase, he'd been dismissive of jazz until he recognised that Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were also great blues artists. He'd wanted to sing but was not encouraged and so gravitated to the saxophone as a substitute, embracing the '30s jazz of tenor saxophone master Lester Young.
For his final school year, he went to Sydney Conservatorium, as did his friend, Martin Keys, a clarinetist, who opened his ears to classical music and bebop, whereupon Simmonds completed a 10-year musical odyssey by embracing the revolutionary jazz of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. He then enrolled in the newly established jazz studies course at the Con, run by US saxophonist Howie Smith, who also played in a band called the Jazz Co-Op, although Simmonds developed a deeper admiration for its drummer Phil Treloar and pianist Roger Frampton.
In the 1970s, he had a weekly residency at Morgan’s Feedwell, Glebe, with Treloar and bassist Jack Thorncraft. "For me at the age I was, that was like the dream machine," he told me in a 2007 interview. In 1979, Treloar formed the Australian Art Ensemble, with Simmonds and pianist Bobby Gebert, which recorded the first of only three major documents of Simmonds' playing. This volcanic album, easily among Australian jazz's most significant, was finally released in 2011 as Trio '79.
The trio received a grant to study in New York, which proved a pivotal, if not always edifying, experience. Simmonds found some of the knowledge and teaching laughably inadequate and was similarly disappointed by many concerts, with Sun Ra, Arthur Blythe (the only saxophonist he thought as original as Australia's Bernie McGann) and ex-Miles Davis saxophonist George Coleman the exceptions.
His studies with the latter were a world away from formulaic learning, and this deeper understanding opened up limitless possibilities. "Until the last day I played saxophone, I was still at the edge of learning something new," he said. He left New York no longer intimidated by the jazz tradition.
Back in Australia, he and Treloar worked extensively together, privately on complex rhythmic ideas and publicly in Treloar's Feeling to Thought project, which recorded in the late '80s, the extraordinary results released in 2012 as Primal Communication. Simmonds also collaborated with such diverse bands as KMA Orchestra, the Dynamic Hepnotics, Jackie Orszaczky's Jump Back Jack and Mara!.
His primary focus, however, was his own band, the Freeboppers, playing his startlingly original compositions, some of which he'd penned while still at school. He conceived of rhythm section parts as intrinsic to a piece's identity as the chords or melody, and sought to push players out of their comfort zones to expunge cliches. Every note had to carry meaning, and the music was a constant dialogue between Simmonds' twin desires: to control the outcome and to create an environment that maximised the players' creativity. He could obsessively cajole them on stage, yet amid the complexity he sought a core simplicity: "You have to be like a folk musician," he said. "You have to be that close to the earth all the time."
Many of Australia's finest players passed through the band, which made only one album: the aptly named Fire (1993), recorded by an especially strong incarnation, with trumpeter Scott Tinkler, bassist (and long-term Simmonds collaborator) Steve Elphick and drummer Simon Barker. Another incarnation followed before Simmonds broke up the band amid a firestorm of adversity. Substance abuse had been masking his bipolarity, and he decided to bow out of music and get a job as a hospital cleaner, but his life spiralled down until he was living on the streets for a while. A 2002 comeback at the Side on Cafe confirmed that performing was unendurable for him.
Now he was beset by endless well-meaning questions about why he'd stopped and when he'd start again. Beyond being physically unable to do so with poorly fitting dentures (after being assaulted), he didn't want to face the extreme highs and lows of performance. Instead he played recorder, re-engaged with blues guitar, taught himself piano, composed and eventually bought a soprano saxophone. Even when living on the streets, he was still studying music books.
"I haven’t fallen out of love with music," he told me, "but I fell out of love with performing." In 2018 ex-Laughing Clowns drummer Jeffrey Wegener coaxed him to play a gig in Leichhardt that would prove his last. Wegener said that Simmonds seemed to enjoy himself and played soprano brilliantly.
While there was always a volatile side, the intensely intelligent Simmonds could be gentle, amusing, kind and caring, and was extremely well read, with Byron and Lorca among his favourite writers. His influence on two generations of Australian musicians has been profound. He is survived by his brother, Derek, and ex-partners Louise Blackwell and Libby Angel.
Where is it happening?616-620 Harris St, Ultimo NSW 2007, Australia, Sydney, Australia
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