Thursday, April 2, 2009

John Haley "Zoot" Sims - Part 3

Don DeMichael wrote of Zoot Sims in Down Beat: “he provides the best of all possible arguments for blowing sessions."

Leonard Feather recalled that Bill Holman once said to him: “People have wondered why Zoot doesn't progress. I figured it out - it's simply that guys like him don't need to progress: they just mature. With his talent, what else do you need?”

[C] - Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

As I was trying to put Zoot’s recording career in some kind of perspective, I received this message from my friend Wellington Choy in New Zealand and he did it for me. Welly graciously allowed me permission to reproduce this message as follows:

March 20, 2009

“Hi Steve,

I think the most remarkable thing about Zoot's recording career is that until Norman Granz signed him up in 1975 for Pablo (ten years before Zoot passed away) - he was one of the few major jazz figures that didn't appear to have a long standing contract with any record company.

I have mentioned that I regard 1956 as being a highlight year in Zoot's career - this is because he was very active in both the USA and Europe, recording in his own name for a variety of record labels - and he was at the peak of his powers at age 31. Even his excellent co-led sessions with Al Cohn didn't garner a long term contract with any one record company.

I suspect that the reason for his not being snaffled up by Columbia, RCA Victor, Capitol et al. was because he was too laid back and although he swung like hell at the drop of a hat, he may have lacked "personality", or the "it" factor? Or was Zoot not "aggressive" enough in seeking out a contract with a record company, rather than his "one shot" recording history, until Norman Granz signed him up for Pablo. What do you think?

Zoot didn't fit in to the Blue Note mold (I think his only BN session was the one with Jutta Hipp) and while on the West Coast in 1954, neither Contemporary or Pacific Jazz did much - apart from Zoot being on the lovely Clifford Brown PJ album - possibly because he wasn't "West Coast" enough.

I'm also rather surprised that Norman Granz didn't record him for Verve when he had that label.

Even the irascible and prickly Ruby Braff seemed to have more than one-shot deals with Vanguard, RCA Victor, Chiaroscuro, Concord and towards the end, Arbors Jazz.

Looking through the Tom Lord discography, the figures speak for themselves :

Stan Getz - died at 64. Leadership sessions 221 : Number of times on record 413 - so almost 50% of his recording were in his own name.

Sonny Rollins - born 1930, still going - thank heavens! . Leadership sessions 130 to date. Number of times on record 177 - so 74%% his own recordings.

Cannonball Adderley - died at 47. Leadership sessions 130. Number of times on record 206 - so 63% his own recordings - but he died relatively young.

But as for Zoot - died at 60. Leadership sessions 96. Number of times on record 536 - so only 18% of his recording session were in his own name. And he is on more sessions that Stan Getz!

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, as to why he didn't get roped in by one of the major record companies as a contract artist when he was younger. …

Whatever, to me I buy every record by Zoot I can lay my hands upon - and there isn't a single dud amongst them.”
With that ringing endorsement of Zoot’s recordings, let’s continue on by returning to Doug Ramsey’s Jazz Matters: Reflections of the Music & Some of Its Makers [Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989 pp. 217-220 ] as it affords a recapitulation of the highlights of Zoot’s career as well as some moving anecdotes, and his brief reviews of a number of Zoot’s albums will serve as a segue into a larger discussion of Zoot’s records.].

“Zoot Sims died March 23rd at the age of fifty-nine. He was the most dependable and consistent of tenor saxophonists. Never dull, never predictable, he symbolized the spirit of jazz. A performance by Zoot carried two guarantees: it would swing, and it would have surprises. He was always on the brink of the next surprise and looking forward to it.

He required no start-up time. Zoot Sims was that rarity, a musician who was capable of swinging from the first note, and his swing was irresistible. He could generate it with superior rhythm sections, with inferior rhythm sections, and without rhythm sections.

He loved to play. I remember a 1955 Seattle concert by a touring group of jazz stars and the jam session afterward, a gathering of big-name players and the cream of local musicians in a little hall near the University of Washington. Zoot staked out a low stool near the piano and played until three in the morning, long after George Shearing, Chet Baker, Toots Thielemans, and the other visiting jazzmen had bailed out. It was just Sims and a rhythm section headed by pianist Paul Neves. Finally, as the rhythm players were packing up to leave, Zoot closed his eyes, rested his head against the wall, and kept on swinging as hard by himself as he had with piano, bass, and drums. It's an indelible image.
Years ago I was on a committee that put together the first New Orleans Jazz Festival. When deliberations began on the all-star group we wanted as a house band, Willis Conover of the Voice of America said, "Well, we'll have to have Zoot, of course," and looked around the table as we all nodded. Then we went on to pick the rest of the players.
Back in the sixties, during a two-week engagement at a New Orleans club called Economy Hall, Zoot found himself with two-thirds of a rhythm section when his bass player took ill. The only reasonably competent bassist available locally was far below Zoot's level and knew it. "Don't worry about it," Zoot told him. "Do what you can do. We'll get along fine." The bassist did what he could, but the first couple of nights were rough for him. Zoot was swinging magnificently while carrying his timorous bass player and adjusting his own improvisation to help the pianist provide simple harmonic guidelines. By the end of the first week the bassist was adequate. Zoot could have called New York for a replacement. Instead, he continued to bring along the New Orleans substitute. Night by night, the improvement was audible. When the engagement ended, the man was a considerably better bass player. And he idolized Zoot Sims.

John Haley Sims was born in California to parents who were vaudevillians. Young Jack was at first the drummer, then the clarinetist in the family band. When he joined Kenny Baker's band as a fifteen-year-old tenor saxophonist, each of the music stands was embellished with a nonsense word. The one he sat behind said "Zoot." That became his name.

Much has been made of Lester Young's influence on Zoot, and rightfully; he revered Young. But Ben Webster was his original inspiration. In 1944, at the age of nineteen, after having worked in four big bands, including Benny Goodman's, Sims replaced Webster in Sid Catlett's quartet. Webster remained a lifelong passion. One evening in the early seventies when Zoot, his wife Louise, and guitarist Jim Hall and his wife were visiting, I asked if anyone would like to hear a record. "All Too Soon," Zoot said without hesitation. We listened to Duke Ellington's 1940 masterpiece, with its regal Webster solo, three times. Zoot asked for a fourth hearing. 'I'll never get enough of it. Every time I hear it, it's like the first time," he said.
Zoot married Louise Choo in 1970. To the casual observer it might have seemed an unusual pairing, the itinerant tenor player and the charming, sophisticated assistant to Clifton Daniel, managing editor of The New York Times. But it was one of the most graceful and affectionate of marriages, full of regard, appreciation, and laughter. A couple of years ago in San Francisco, where they had taken an apartment during Zoot's engagement at Keystone Korner, I picked them up for dinner. When I pulled up in front of the building, Zoot, his trench coat collar turned up against the foggy chill and the bill of his plaid car cap low over his eyes, was laughing at something Louise was saying. Then he spoke and she laughed, and as they entered the car they continued chatting and laughing, like the best friends they were. That was at a time when the medical news was not good for either of them and Zoot seemed frail, his Joseph Cotten good looks edged in gauntness. It was typical of their relationship that in the most uncertain of times they brought out the best in one another.

One bone-chilling December day years ago my wife and I went to Yankee Stadium with the Simses and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams to watch the New York Giants get buried alternately by snow flurries and the Baltimore Colts defense. We could hear but not see the band hired by the Giants' management to entertain the fans and inspire the team. The clarinetist, Adams said, was either Benny Goodman or Sol Yaged, Goodman's greatest imitator. Benny may have been legendary for his thrift, Zoot observed, but he was too rich to need an outdoor gig in this kind of weather. It had to be Sol. Knowing how closely Zoot had worked with Goodman over the years, I had a hunch his ear alone could have led him to that conclusion. Sims apparently never had any of the extraordinary problems of abuse suffered by so many musicians who worked with the notoriously difficult Goodman, beyond simply having to put up with him. Goodman first hired him when Zoot was a teenager and often called him for reunion appearances long after Zoot was a star. Sims allowed as how he and Benny never talked much and that might have been the secret.

Back at Zoot and Louise's midtown apartment, unfrozen and fed, we played Ping-Pong, a game at which Zoot excelled with the same timing and deceptive relaxation that he brought to music. He also liked wood carving and skillfully created birds and other forms from driftwood. He was a major league gardener, and when he and Louise finally gave up the apartment to live full-time at their place in West Nyack, New York, he got into heavy-duty landscaping. Frequently during our get-togethers, Louise and I discussed music or the news business while Zoot and my wife exchanged accumulated wisdom about soil pH factors and peat moss.
In the mid-seventies Norman Granz began recording Zoot extensively, and there is now a series of fifteen Sims albums on Granz's Pablo label. They are all at least very good, and most of them are excellent. A sampler called The Best of Zoot Sims [PACD 2405-2406] contains representative tracks. One of the most recent releases, Quietly There: Zoot Sims Plays Johnny Mandel (Pablo 2310-903), is among the best recordings in his forty-four-year career as a professional musician.
Primarily a tenor saxophonist, Sims was also respected for his work on alto sax and, in recent years, on soprano. Arnie Astrup, a Danish saxophonist and critic, may have summed up the feelings of many musicians and listeners when he said, "I hate the soprano saxophone. It is a clown instrument. They should be burned, all. But when Zoot plays it, I like it."
One of the Pablo albums, Zoot Sims: Soprano Sax (Pablo 2310-770), is devoted entirely to the instrument. He played it with such passion, involvement, and straightforward swing that I can't imagine anyone's not liking it.
As for his alto work, Zoot Sims Plays Four Altos (reissued on Impulse 29060) is one of the most admired saxophone records, not only for Sims's creativity and his accomplishment of overdubbing four alto parts but also for the ingenious compositions and arrangements by George Handy. Zoot's alto work is also outstanding on The Big Stampede (Biograph BLP-12064), a recording with his superb 1956 band, which included pianist John Williams and trumpeter Jerry Lloyd, two excellent, nearly forgotten musicians.

Zootcase (Prestige P-24061) is a two-album reissue of recordings made from 1950 through 1954. Among them is the memorable session with "Morning Fun," "Zootcase," "Tangerine," and the original recording of "The Red Door," which became a staple developed by Sims and his fellow tenor saxophonist Al Cohn. Besides the tenors, the band was made up of trombonist Kai Winding and the formidable rhythm section of pianist George Wallington, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Art Blakey. This one belongs in any basic collection. ..."

And while we are in The Land of the Heavy-Hitter Jazz Reviewers with Doug Ramsey’s selections from among Zoot’s recordings, another member of this august group is Ira Gitler who has been astutely writing about Jazz in book form and record critiques for over a half-of-century.
Here is Ira’s review of Body and Soul [Muse MCD 5356; 32jazz 32017] as published in Tom Piazza’s Setting the Tempo: Fifty years of Great Liner Notes [New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1996, pp. 120-126].

“In listening to a test pressing of this album, someone was moved to say, as the twin tenor tendrils of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims intertwined around the melodic trellis of Emily, “Now, there’s a friendship. She was as right as Leonard Feather back in 1960 when he called them “the Damon and Pythias of the tenors.”

Al and Zoot have had a perfect blendship since January 1948, when they first me in a parking lot in Salt Lake City at the time Al joined Woody Herman’s Second Herd. The musical-social association that began then grew during their travels with Woody and solidified in the immediate post-Herman period in New York, when they had the opportunity to play together in various small groups and at many informal sessions.
Off the stand they drank together, played softball together, visited each other's apartments, and generally strengthened the bond between them. In 1957 they finally formalized their musical affinity by forming a working quintet which spotlighted the two tenor saxophones and occasionally featured their assorted other horns. Although for the next two years they recorded and worked within the new format on an intermittent basis, the group really came into its own in 1959, when Sims and Cohn began working regularly at the old Half Note. Between the several engagements each year at the club on Manhattan's Lower West Side, there were visits to the jazz spots of other cities. Al continued to write arrangements for a multitude of aggregations (including the Cohn-Sims quintet) and both men recorded on their own as well as team-style.

1960 marked the last time they recorded in a two-tenor with rhythm format. The inordinate length of time between recordings for the team makes this one's value go beyond its intrinsic musical worth, which is very high, indeed. The fact that Al and Zoot have not worked together as often in the 1970s as they did in the 1960s is yet another reason that this studio gathering had such a special aura.

The lists of Al's and Zoot's friends do not stop at one. The same characteristics of warmth, humor, and just plain old-fashioned humanity that made their own friendship a reality have drawn many admirers into each man's orbit. The atmosphere in the studio on the afternoon this session was taped was one of quietly joyous celebration. The feeling was verbalized in certain ways, but mostly it was unspoken. The good vibes that were ricocheting around the room were as implicit as the good notes they reflected. With former Herman mates like Terry Gibbs and Lou Levy visiting from the West Coast, and ex-band mate and colleague Frankie Socolow in attendance, this session had all the positive aspects of an alumni reunion.

Both Zoot and Al can communicate a wide range of emotions through their playing. (Forget about hate.) Each has had his knocks just by virtue of living on this planet for forty-five years, but each has the kind of spirit which is able to deflect the flings and marrows of egregious Gorgons. This optimism in the face of reality comes out in the music and is one of the appealing, attractive, uplifting elements in the righteous rhapsody we call jazz, generally speaking and specifically as it applies to Cohn-Sims. There is nothing so potent in the pro-life arsenal as a sense of humor. Al and Zoot are not wanting in this department.
Cohn, the Brooklyn native transplanted to the Poconos, is renowned as a raconteur of droll and ribald stories. The lost art of telling a joke has not gone astray because of his efforts. And he's not bad with a pun-ishing ad-lib, either. He was an S. I Perelman head while still in his teens and into the Marx Bros. and W. C. Fields then, too. Al loves to do The New York Times crossword puzzle, is an avid fisherman, and sleeps in a Saran Wrap nightshirt on a bed of pine needles.

Native Californian Sims, the Westerner who found happiness in New York, exhibits humor of a drier bent. Once, at a record date when someone swallowed only one half an upper and was about to discard the rest, Zoot admonished: "Think of all the kids in Europe who are sleeping' He's just as likely to spring a singing song tide on you, like Ray Sims with the Moon; Zoot Sims to Me I’ve Heard That Song Before; or his ever-popular Sol Schlinger Awhile. He enjoys reshaping driftwood into bird and animal forms; makes some mean chili and guacamole; has been known to Ping-Pong it up; and sleeps nude in the top of a double bunk bed without a ladder.

The excellent rhythm section which backs the twin cantors of caloric clout here is made up of three diverse personalities who blend beautifully, enabling Sims and Cohn to forget about anything but projecting their thoughts and feelings in an inspired manner over a welling billow of harmonic-rhythmic plenitude.

Jaki Byard, the sometimes unpredictably unorthodox and oft-times brilliantly versatile, historically encyclopedic pianist, worked with Al and Zoot at Lennie's on the Turnpike in Boston, the old Half Note, and is capable of being intelligently avant-garde, seriously raggish, unstridently stridish, or any other way you want to play it. Most of the time he enjoys swinging in any of its many guises, like straight ahead with the saxophone seraphs. Presently, Mr. Byard is a Professor of Music at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

One of the deans of the contrabass in American music is George Duvivier, a veteran of the New York recording, radio, and television studios, where his path has crossed with Zoot and Al on innumerable occasions. For tone, time, propulsion, and all-around musical knowledge and experience, Monsieur Duvivier has few peers. Lately, he has been alternating with one of those peers, Milt Hinton, in the Bobby Rosengarden orchestra on The Dick Cavett Show.

Co-leader of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, drummer Lewis is a subtle accompanist who achieves a driving beat without forging huge metal sculptures in the process. He is able to swing a large organization or a small unit and if you were present for the Gretsch afternoon at Wollman Amphitheater during the 1973 Newport-New York Jazz Festival, you heard him play an unaccompanied drum piece that was as notable for its lack of bombast as for its invention. A "musical" drummer, Mel is, in his own way, carrying on the tradition of the late Tiny Kahn.
The repertory of a working Cohn-Sims group is, of course, well stocked with originals by Al, but it also contains material from other writers from the jazz ranks, like trombonist-arranger Billy Byers, whose Doodle Oodle is based on the changes of There'll Be Some Changes Made. When there are some changes to be made, Al and Zoot negotiate them rather adroitly as in this up-tempo, romp-stomp of an opener. Al's keening choruses - with a finishing quote from the old Paramount News theme, The Eyes and Ears of the World - precede Byard's, and Zoot's - with overtones of Ben Webster in his throaty sound - follow Jaki. Duvivier does some walking on his own before the tenors, in the same order, engage in a round-robin with Lewis.

Emily, mentioned at the outset, is by the Academy Award winning Johnny Mandel and was first heard in The Americanization of Emily. Mandel, a former trombonist-bass trumpeter-jazz arranger, is an old buddy of Zoot and Al, who have long enjoyed interpreting his music.

The tenors take turns with the lead as they state the melody in lovingly tender terms, Zoot beginning the chorus and Al finishing. Each backs the other with superb empathy before setting out on successive wondrous solo flights in the same order.
Next is the Samba Medley. We are long past the fad period of the bossa nova, but the good that it rendered unto American music has survived. Zoot did Djalma Ferreira's Recado Bossa Nova in 1962 at the height of the craze. The lilting, minor-key melody lends itself well to the kind of torrid rhythmic impulses that regularly throb through the Sims tenor.

Byard, delineates The Girl from Ipanema without quite ever revealing her original contours but tells us a lot about the inner woman. Then Cohn expands on One Note Samba (like Girl, a creation of Antonio Carlos Jobim) in a dissertation demonstrating that whether it is one note or many, it's what you do with them that counts.

Al's Mama Flosie is dedicated to his wife, Flo, a fine singer known professionally as Flo Handy. It's a funky holler of a rolling, bluesy forty-bar pattern played in fast waltz time. Cohn and Sims each have two strong solo choruses, gathering momentum as they go. After two insouciantly swinging choruses by Byard, Al and Zoot return to trade thoughts.

Body and Soul is the tenorman's domain. Coleman Hawkins planted the flag there in 1939 and it has been the bearer for this standard ever since. For the neophyte, B&S has been both stumbling block and proving ground; for the seasoned pro, a vehicle allowing the deepest kind of soul-plumbing. Al pulls out a plum here, a plum-sized diamond. This is a heavy performance of Johnny Green's masterpiece, adding to its already weighty heritage. If there be such a thing as continued cosmic consciousness, Hawk must be smiling behind this one.

When the Cohn-Sims quintet began, Zoot doubled alto; Al doubled baritone; and on certain numbers both whipped out their clarinets. Eventually, the essence of the group was boiled down to the two tenors. In 1972, however, Zoot again turned to a second horn. This time it is the soprano (he calls it "Sidney" for Bechet) and it has become a love affair, arousing anything but jealousy in his wife, Louise, and culminating in the kind of performance exemplified by Rod McKuen's heart-touching Jean from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Tune, tone, sound, and substance are wedded in a wistfully affecting way as only Zoot can do it.

Gary McFarland wrote the plaintive Blue Hodge for Johnny Hodges, who recorded it in 1961. Zoot steps right out with full-toned ease. After Jaki's solo, it is Al's deep-throated moans which carry forth the blues. Duvivier's nimble fingers pluck the tenors back into the final chorus.
That's the music, an immaculate execution of a body and soul-pleasing array of songs. I use immaculate in the sense of a perfection that is achieved as a by-product of professionalism that can be reveled in and marveled at because it never loses anything at those really important levels. Al says it well when he talks about Zoot's current work. "He's playing better than ever," comments Cohn. "He's never lost that spontaneity and he's be come more polished. Some players get polished and, with it, more mechanical. Not Zoot. I enjoy his playing more than ever."

Zoot feels that Al is "one of the greatest musicians and men I’ve ever met. It's always a pleasure to play with him. He's great now, but if he played all the time, concentrated on it, he'd even be more sensational.”
Sims was referring to Cohn's busy writing schedule, which takes precedence over his playing hours. Recently, he has arranged part of the score of Raisin, the musical version of Raisin in the Sun.

The indications are, too, that the team of Sims and Cohn is once again going to be more of a factor on the live jazz scene. The release of this record should further increase the renewed demand for their combined services.

Audiences are apt to react the way Cannonball Adderley did one night at the old Half Note. Since he had just come from his own job, he arrived at closing time in the midst of the last number of the morning. Placing his ample frame in the club's entrance with his back squarely, or roundly, against the door, he cried: "Alvin Gilbert Cohn! John Haley Sims! Don't stop now!!"

And while we are in the Realm of Major League Jazz writers and critics, let’s continue with Jack Tracy [who was the editor of Down Beat magazine for a number of years in the 1950s, as well as, a producer of Jazz records], and Mike Hennessey, who has written for all of the major Jazz publications as well as published a biography on the life of pioneering be-bop drummer, Kenny Clarke.

Up first are Jack liner notes to Zoot [ARGO 608; OJCCD 228; including Nat Hentoff’s review of the album in Down Beat] followed by excerpt’s from Mike Hennessey’s insert notes to Zoot Case [Gazell GJCD 1021] and Scott Yanow’s review of it for
“Zoot Sims has been an active member of the Jazz fraternity ever since lie Joined Kenny Baker's orchestra in 1941 at the age of' 16. since that time lie has worked with Bobby Sherwood. Bob Astor, Sonny Dunham. Benny Goodman and an innumerable number of small groups, including that of Gerry Mulligan. which he left in mid-1956 to form his own unit. Yet it has been only of late that his playing has begun to earn the respect among musicians and fans alike that it deserves.

In addition to all his previous credits, Zoot also is the owner of a badge of distinction which can lie worn in the lapels of just three other men. Along with Stan Getz, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, he was one of tile original members of' the "Four Brothers" saxophone section of the Woody Herman orchestra in 1947 and '48.

No other section of' any Jazz band was ever as well-known as the Brothers, due not only to the unique nickname but also because of the artistry of' all its members.

In turn, the musicians were all propelled to varying degrees of faille through the association.

Stan Getz made it almost overnight. His solo on Woody's Early Autumn was a huge hit, and he became the best-known tenor saxist of the past decade, and a winner of seven consecutive 'Down Beat' polls.

Herbie Steward, a musicians' musician highly respected by his fellow players, retired to the obscurity of' Hollywood studios and dance bands early in the '50s. His lovely tone and stipple conception were the envy of many a contemporary.

Baritone saxist Serge Chaloff, all amazingly flexible musician, had a roaring career underway until some personal difficulties virtually wrecked it.

And so just two of the Brothers remain prominent. Their progress might be likened to that of' the hare and the tortoise. Getz flew to fame. Sims has plodded steadily.

Getz is the consummate artist, the brilliant technician with the floating sound. There are times when you will swear there is really nothing left to play after lie has finished a solo. He explores every devious, twisting channel.
Zoot, as Bob Brookmeyer says, "plays earthy." He is direct, simple, logical, and above all, emotional.

I have long held the theory (though certainly is not one evolved by me) that a musician who has found his sea legs and charts his own personal course is just what he plays.

To explain. Roy Eldridge is the same flaming personality as his playing. So is Dizzy Gillespie. The elfin delight in color and sound that pours from Erroll Garner’s piano is Erroll Garner. Jimmy Giuffre is a calm, dryly humorous student of music.

Zoot Sims is the country boy moved to the city, one who has let enough sophistication stick to him that he can get along with the urbanites. Though he has a firm control of his horn, he shrugs off an unnecessary technical bric-a-brac to dig deeply into blues-based roots of jazz. His playing is piercingly honest and revealing, and though he, too, is one of the many who have been influenced by Lester Young, his sound is thicker and fuller, and the beat he evokes is more akin to a heart-beat than a pulse.

Zoot is a swinger planted ankle-deep in loam.

All those qualities are evident in this collection, the first to allow him so much blowing room. He carries it off superbly, from the first booting notes of 9:20 Special, the old swing era favorite, through Dizzy Gillespie’s Latino Woody ‘N You.

In between are a moving eloquent The Man I Love, a skimming excursion over 55th and State, based on a familiar and often employed chord structure [Tea for Two], and Blue Room, played at a finger-snapping tempo.

And then there’s Gus’s Blues, written by Gus Johnson, the drummer on the date. That Old Feeling follows, then Sims picks up the tempo to play Oscar Pettiford’s Bohemia After Dark. It seems fragile in his hands, as if at any moment the instrument might break in two as he pours tenor saxophone conception into it.

Quite a remarkable album, this, one which turns a bright bulb on Zoot Sims, tenor saxophonist.

He does not blink.

Jack Tracy Editor, Down Beat magazine: Album Production – Dave Usher”

Down Beat 1957: Rating – 5 Stars

“”Less is more,’ said an aesthetician several centuries ago while pointing out the power of simplicity, of the direct line of communicating a message. Jack Tracy makes the corollary point for this context in the liner notes: ‘Zoot,’ as Bob Brookmeyer says, ‘plays earthy.’ “He is direct, simple, logical, and above all, emotional.”

The album is a wholly spontaneous one, and as such, merits the full rating as one of the more sustained examples of hot jazz improvisation on recent records. Zoot is one of the very few jazzmen who can make 12” of a one-horn LP a constantly fulfilling experience. His time is apparently as natural in him as his heartbeat (another Tracy point) and his work here is a clear and memorable a definition of what swinging is as you can find. His tone is full and hits with authoritative impact. His conception as fore noted, is refreshingly direct, lean, never banal or scuffling, and as if cleaned of gratuitous ornamentation by the heat.

There is strong rhythmic support with Totah steady, Gus making me wonder for the hundredth-plus time why Basie let him go, and Williams soloing with a fierce, functional incisiveness that complements Zoot well. Can’t find any real complaint anywhere.

The liner even contains the recording date [October 12, 1956].”
And here are excerpts Mike Hennessey’s insert notes to Zoot Case [Gazell GJCD 1021].

“The jazz world owes a substantial vote of thanks to jazz enthusiast Lars Johansson of Morgongava, Sweden who had the great good sense to record this joyous informal session of June 8th, 1982 in Stockholm's Mosebacke pub.

Zoot Sims and AJ Cohn, one of the most creative and compatible partnerships in jazz, were in town for the Stockholm Jazz & Blues Festival. On this particular evening they had no festival commitment so they were invited to jam at the pub. The performances which resulted carefree, relaxed, exuberant - are an object lesson in swing spontaneity and sublime musical rapport. The music is an eloquent definition of what Jazz is - or what should be - all about. It typifies the musical philosophy of Al and Zoot - unpretentious, straight-ahead hard-swinging, happy-go-lucky, irresistibly infectious jazz that comes from the heart, delights the ear and mobilizes the feet.

AJ and Zoot were soulmates. They were born within a month of each other in the Fall of 1925: they both started out on clarinet they both had the imprint of the unique Lester Young on their saxophone styles and each had the same loose-limbed sense of swing.

Actually, the fifth bar in the bridge of the penultimate chorus of "Exactly Like You” says it all far more effectively than I could hope to do. Zoot and Al are improvising freely together while the rhythm section lays out - and. at this particular point in the sequence, they hit on phrases which am virtually identical.

(Incidentally, in preparing the note for this album, I checked out the sleeve of Al and Zoot’s first Sonet date, "Motoring Along", which included this passage in my comments on My Funny Valentine: “And just to underline the rapport between the two leaders, listen to the way their thoughts overlap on the unaccompanied cannon towards the end of the same number." This was a fascinating feature of Al and Zoot's work together).
Alvin Cohn … [is] a prolific composer and arranger and a witty, intelligent soloist Cohn was largely a musician’s musician and much underrated by the jazz public. … Nat Hentoff described Zoot as 'one of those musicians who had the power to make everyone in the room feel the way he does. He speaks to those who need more from music quick tricks.’

The high level of appreciations accorded to Zoot by the public. by critics and fellow musicians makes it hard to believe that in the fifties, he had to take up house painting to supplement his income arid provide for his family.

It was just about 30 years before this album was recorded that Al and Zoot first came together in a small group setting to record some sides for Prestige - one of which, coincidentally enough, was “Zootcase." Trombonist Kai Winding was also in the front line and the rhythm section was George Wallington, Percy Heath and Art Blakey. It was out of this session that the idea of the most agreeable features of the jazz scene over the next two and a half decades came together.
The official Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quintet recorded debut occurred on January 24th, 1956 when it made some sides for RCA Victor with Hank Jones, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson.

In those days both Al and Zoot had rather cooler and less robust sounds than are in evidence on this album, but the compatibility and mutual stimulation was there from the beginning. … Mike Hennessey ….”

And writing in, this is Scott Yanow’s view of Zoot Case:

“During a 30-year period the very complementary tenors Zoot Sims and Al Cohn teamed up on an irregular but always consistently satisfying basis. This club date from Stockholm, one of their final joint recordings, features the pair backed by pianist Claes Croona, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Petur Ostlund. Both Zoot and Cohn sound quite inspired and they really push each other on "Exactly like You," "After You've Gone" (which features Sims on soprano) and even a surprisingly heated version of "The Girl from Ipanema." Al Cohn’s tone had deepened during the years and, although they sounded nearly identical in the 1950s, it is quite easy to tell the two tenors apart during this encounter. The CD (…) is highly recommended for fans of the saxophonists and for bop collectors in general.”
It’s hard to imagine improving on Al Cohn and Zoot Sims playing together, but Jazz Alive! A Night At The Half Note [Blue Note 7243 1 94105 2 7]is an album that offers a brief glimpse of how this could come about because it contains two tracks on which alto saxophonist Phil Woods joins the dynamic tenor saxophone duo for a 20 minute-plus romp on Wee Dot and After You’ve Gone.

For the selfish amongst us, I’m sure that these two tracks rank only as a musical appetizer, and that we would have preferred a continuing feast of Cohn, Sims, and Woods. But alas, it was not meant to be and we must be satisfied with small portions.
Writing in, Ken Dryden had this to say about Jazz Alive:

“Zoot Sims and Al Cohn always made great music together; this live CD documents portions of two nights' work together at the Half Note in New York City, assisted by pianist Mose Allison, bassist Nabil Totah and drummer Paul Motian. Their brisk setting of "Lover, Come Back to Me" features Cohn, Sims and Allison soloing in turn, building the fire before the eventual trading of fours between the tenor saxophonists. After a relaxed rendition of "It Had to Be You," alto saxophonist Phil Woods is added to the mix for the next two numbers, recorded the very next evening. The guest sets up the percolating mid-tempo setting of "Wee Dot," with the tenors following him. The delightful interplay within the long workout of "After You've Gone" signals the chemistry between the three friends. It's a shame that no unreleased material was located for this 1998 CD reissue, but in any case, bop and cool fans will want to make an effort to acquire this excellent release.”
In addition to his work with Al Cohn in their quintet and touring with his own quartet Zoot, spent a great deal of time in the company of Gerry Mulligan: first in the mid-1950s in the previously mentioned sextet and again in early 1960’s this time with Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

Returning to more of drummer Larry Bunker’s comments about Zoot and his career as a way of making a passing reference to the recordings that Zoot made while he was with Gerry:

“After the concerts with Gerry’s sextet in San Diego, I played a few more gigs with him, but he split for New York and re-formed the group there with a new rhythmic section using Dave Bailey on drums.

I always thought my style of drumming was too intense for Gerry; too propulsive. He seemed to like it some times, but some times he said that it was ‘too busy.’ I think he preferred a drummer who kept straight time with a beat that had more of a loping, running feeling to it; something that was easier for him to play over.

It never made any difference to Zoot. He could go with anything from a time-keeper to a drummer who kicked him in the bu**.

Going back to his time with Krupa and Elliott Lawrence, Gerry was always a big band guy and he was always working on the way he wanted a big band of his own to sound and to feel from the quartet with Chet, to the sextet with Bob Brookmeyer and Zoot, and eventually with his New York big band
[although it wasn’t referenced so at the time of this conversation with Larry, Gerry’s big band was later to be called “the Concert Jazz Band”].

The things he did with Gil Evans [which have subsequently become known as “the Birth of the Cool recordings”], the charts he wrote for Kenton’s band, but especially the work he did with the sextet, really formed the basis for that big band.
Brookmeyer and Zoot became the foundation. They thought about music in the same way that Gerry did. If you listen sextet charts for The Lady is a Tramp, Westwood Walk and Bernie’s Tune on those early Mercury
[Emarcy] records, you can hear a lot of the devices that Gerry and Bobby Brookmeyer would use when they wrote those big band arrangements later.

There was always a lot of tight ensemble work, but the charts also left pretty of room for the soloists to stretch out – something Gerry was very keen on.

That’s why he wanted the rhythm section to have a looser feel to it and Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis were the perfects cats for that.

I’m not sure when they first met, but for a long time, Zoot was never far away from what Gerry was thinking and planning, musically. Brookmeyer, too.”

A few years later, I got together with Larry again. The intervening years had been good to him. He was still living in the Los Feliz area of the Hollywood Hills, but this time we met at his house and the ice teas were replaced with a couple of beers. In the context of catching-me-up on his travels, not surprisingly, Zoot’s name came up again, as they remained good friends over the years.

“After I joined Bill Evans, I was in New York a lot for a couple of years and Gerry and I got together every once in a while. It was a really busy time for him trying to get work for the big band. Running a big band ain’t easy and he had passed over a lot of the arranging responsibilities to Brookmeyer, Gary McFarland and a few others. I think he was also looking for a new recording contract, too.
I asked him about our old pal Zoot and he got this weird grin on his face and he said: ‘Swinging as ever. Zoot made the West Coast concerts and a European tour, but he’s really busy doing his thing with Al
[Cohn] and with his own band. He’s really a small group guy at heart. But I miss him because he adds so much Life to everything he touches.’ [emphasis mine].”

Larry went on to say: “You know, what Gerry said about him is so true. Zoot had so much spirit. He could be a character, but he was a gutsy guy. He came to a gig or a session to play and you always got 100% from him.”

Perhaps as a way of closing this piece it's best to let these remarks by Larry Bunker and Gerry Mulligan serve to stand and, in so doing, to define the essence of the man who was John Haley Sims; endearingly and unmistakably known as “Zoot” to all of us who loved his music.


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