A Study in Contrasts: Elvin Jones & Jimmy Garrison’s “Illumination!”

Banner image: Album cover of "Illumination!" by the Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison Sextet.

I’ve recently spent a bit of time listening again to the 1963 album Illumination!, by the Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison Sextet. I find it an interesting study of contrasts and a very unusual album. It features one of the greatest—if not the greatest—rhythm sections in the history of jazz: McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; and Elvin Jones, drums. This famous trio backed John Coltrane on his best-known Impulse! Records albums. I’ve wondered why the trio moved away from Coltrane duties to record Illumination!, and wish I could ask the producer, the late Bob Thiele, how this album came about.

Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio on August 8, 1963, Illumination! also features lesser-known horn players who you’d think would never work in such illustrious company, but indeed they do. Sonny Simmons plays alto sax and English horn, Prince Lasha (“La-Shay”) plays clarinet and flute, and Charles Davis is on baritone saxophone.

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While Davis plays in a straight-ahead style, Lasha (pictured above in a 1982 photo taken in Amsterdam) and Simmons were part of the jazz avant-garde in the 1960’s, recording for ESP-Disk and other adventurous labels. You hear the influence of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy in Simmons’s and Lasha’s improvisations, and in general they display a more raw and free style than other prevailing horn players of the day. They stretch out the band toward the corners like a centrifugal force, but the powerhouse rhythm section always reigns it all back in. As a result, solos that might have driven listeners to the exits instead combine into a wonderful, joyous whole.

Miles Davis once said he’d rather hire new musicians who weren’t great rather than keep musicians he’d worked with for a long time or work with well-known jazz artists. Coltrane himself used little-known personnel for his titanic work Ascension.  Simmons’s and Lasha’s iconoclastic styles differ greatly from a Joe Henderson or a Wayne Shorter. Like square pegs in round holes, Simmons (pictured below in a 1997 photo) and Lasha counter-balance the famous trio. This difference between their solos and the trio is what creates the frisson, the musical magic that makes this album unique.

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The six songs on Illumination! total only 31­­ minutes of music. I am always surprised by how little music comes on the many albums I’ve treasured since high school days. The opening track “Nuttin’ Out Jones” features Sonny Simmons stretching out on English horn, an instrument hardly ever heard in jazz. The bluesy “Oriental Flower” shows off Elvin Jones’s beautiful drum brushwork. Charles Davis solos on two numbers, and I have always loved his powerful solo on “Half and Half.” The marching song “Aborigines Dance in Scotland” has a highland feel, but most of the song is taken up by an extended solo by Elvin Jones. Jimmy Garrison’s “Getting’ on Way” features Simmons on alto and Lasha on flute. “Just Us Blues” is a 12-bar blues featuring Davis again.

McCoy Tyner and Sonny Simmons remain the last two living members of the sextet. Jimmy Garrison died young in 1976, Elvin Jones passed in 2004, Prince Lasha in 2008, and Charles Davis in 2016. I once interviewed Jones on Morning Becomes Eclectic and had a great time hearing about his life with Coltrane and beyond. I will always remember that when I shook Jones’s hand to say goodbye, I couldn’t get my hand around his big hand. It felt like trying to shake hands with a baseball glove!

Illumination! has been reissued on CD, but I’m of course partial to the vinyl. Well-recorded music, especially drums, always sounds better in analog. Besides, you want to hear Elvin Jones in the best way possible. I have and love the 180g deluxe vinyl reissue.

Check out Sonny Simmons on English horn (hardly ever heard in jazz) on “Nuttin’ Out Jones”:

The jazz waltz called “Half and Half” features Charles Davis on baritone saxophone. I have always loved his powerful solo on this track.

If you’re so inclined, you can also hear the whole album on youtube or on Spotify.