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September 13, 2012
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Cosmosamantics ‘3 Piece Junkband Tour’ comes to Caspe Terrace

By Chad Taylor

Sonny Simmons and The Cosmosamantics play at Caspe Terrace in Waukee on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door. Students are $20.

Michael Marcus cut his teeth listening to blues albums in San Francisco in the 1960s, wanting to emulate people like Sonny Sitt and Charlie “Bird” Parker.

“I studied blues because that’s where everything else I was into came from,” Marcus said in an interview from New York. “I began to understand the art of jazz improvisation and the relationship jazz has with the blues as its foundation.”

Meanwhile, Sonny Simmons was already the stuff of jazz legend. By the time Marcus had finished high school, Simmons was already nationally recognized through albums like “Staying on the Watch” and his turn with the Prince Lasha Quintet on “The Cry!”

Then their lives took dramatically different paths. In the 1970s, Marcus hit the blues circuit full-stride. Playing his baritone saxophone, Marcus toured the country — then the world — with blues greats like Sonny Rhodes, Albert King and B.B. King. During the same time, however, Simmons’ career would be marked only by silence. Personal problems and family issues conspired against him, and his career faded throughout the decade.

But in 1980, the two men were introduced for the first time.

“(Bay Area blues musician) Hi Tide Harris hired me to play baritone sax on this recording he was doing,” Marcus recalled. “He mentioned that there would be an alto player that sounds like Bird. I thought it was going to be The Bishop (Norman Williams), but Hi Tide said, ‘No, it’s Sonny Simmons!’ I just thought, ‘Wow. The guy’s a legend.’ ”

From there the two would maintain a casual working relationship throughout most of the next two decades, playing together a couple of times on the east coast and some gigs in San Francisco in the mid-’90s. Finally, around the turn of the millennium, Simmons and Marcus decided to form a band. From the beginning, the feel of the project — named The Cosmosamatics after a track from Simmons’ 1996 album “Transcendence” — would be based upon the comfortable exchange of two musicians with a long history together.

“Sonny is a telepathic player, and I’m a telepathic player,” said Marcus. “It just means that we’re able to feel the flow of what the other is doing and play accordingly. I am one of the few horn players that has the ability to telepathically hook up with Sonny.”

Eventually, they would add drummer Jay Rosen to the lineup.

“Michael actually auditioned me,” Rosen recalled. “I played for a while and didn’t see Sonny at all until he walked into the room, listened for a little bit and said ‘Y’all right.’ And that was that.”

There have been other members at various points throughout the years, most notably upright bassists William Parker, Curtis Lundy, Masa Kamaguchi, Gildas Scouarnec, Tarus Mateen and Peter Herbert, but the core has remained Marcus, Simmons and Rosen. The continuity is important to Marcus.

“We are a BAND,” reads the liner notes from The Cosmosamatics’ 2005 album “Zetrons.” “Sonny and I have been collaborating for years to keep the tradition alive of being a band.”

The resulting sound on display in central Iowa for the first time ever this week is eclectic and mercurial, like avant-garde jazz should be. Simmons’ alto sax conjures up the ghost of “Bird” Parker and mixes it with jazz overtones, while Marcus’ woodwind work dances alongside. Rosen’s timekeeping is impeccable behind the two, and the sound of these three cats together is the sound of creation. CV

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