Ian Sims and Divergent Paths – Conundrum [TrackList follows]

Ian Sims and Divergent Paths – Conundrum [TrackList follows] – self-released 889211086849, 53:32 [1/6/15] ***1/2:

(Ian Sims – tenor sax, producer; Alex Norris – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Paul Bollenback – guitar; Ed Howard – bass; EJ Strickland – drums)

Despite the album title, there’s no puzzle to saxophonist Ian Sims’ self-released debut, Conundrum. This is 53 minutes of straightforward jazz by Sims and his quintet, Divergent Paths. Sims’ nine originals have the hallmarks of traditional, modern jazz: a bit of blues, lots of horns, a swinging rhythm section, memorable melodies readymade for improvising, and compositions which draw on customary jazz.

Sims’ isn’t nationally known, but he’s got a standing in the Baltimore-Washington, DC area. He currently holds three, jazz-related positions at the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, helping the school with its jazz academic program and an affiliated jazz venue. He has played with soul groups; performed with local symphonies and touring jazz artists; and has a background with dual majors, engineering and music. For his first foray in the recording studio, Sims assembled a sturdy fivesome which comprises Sims on tenor sax; Alex Norris (who has recorded with Michael Dease) on trumpet and Flugelhorn; electric guitarist Paul Bollenback (credits include Houston Person, Vince Seneri and Jim Snidero); bassist Ed Howard; and drummer EJ Strickland. Together they effortlessly flow, with confidence and cheerfulness, through melodic tunes. This is post-bop jazz which isn’t boring or lackluster, and has a dose of familiarity and friendly flexibility.

One of the highpoints is “Treacherous Persona,” which starts out upbeat and bright and then filters to an ominous sound. Early in the number there is space for Norris and Sims, who do unison lines and separate solos. Later—when Bollenback shines in the spotlight—the arrangement down-shifts in tone with Bollenback’s distorted guitar, as he provides a darker demeanor which brings to mind John Scofield. The appropriately titled “Cork Street Blues”—an homage to a street in Winchester, VA near Sims’ hometown—is a quick-paced composition which alludes to a lively, geographical location filled with music and larger-than-life characters who might hang out in such surroundings. Sims uses a tilted, stop-start structure which supplies a slightly unpredictable setting, particularly at the conclusion. Sims’ has posted a live version online, with different personnel. Another optimistic, post-bop piece is the urgent “The Eleventh Hour,” a cooker complete with energy and vigor fueled by racing drums and bass, and some fiery horn workouts, with dazzling playing from everyone, including Strickland’s outstanding drum solo. “The Eleventh Hour” is a crowd pleaser, and a live favorite, which is probably why Sims has an on-stage rendition available to view online.

Sims takes things to a quieter mood on other tracks. The aptly-named “Solitude” was the first piece Sims penned and performed publicly. The tune has gone through a few evolutions, and grew into a nonet arrangement at one time, but was pared down to a quintet translation for this project. The cut has a considerate course, from a mid-tempo section into a slower, late-night segment accentuated by Bollenback’s supple guitar chords and Sims’ warm tenor sax. Another mostly-relaxed track is “Foiled,” which Sims states in his liner notes, “Is synonymous with the frustrations we all must endure from time to time.” There is a tad of tension during the six minutes, but nothing too edgy or nervous, and the careful communication between horns, guitar, and the rhythm instruments is the opposite of discordant. Anyone interested in hearing this can watch an online video (with different personnel). The lengthiest track, “Forgotten,” is the most melancholy number, with a delicate, nearly ambient guitar introduction; sublime cymbal effort by Strickland; and Howard’s sympathetic bass, which offers a fitting backdrop for Bollenback’s flitting guitar. Sims has also put up a live rendering online with a different group. Sims and Divergent Paths conclude with the fleet and expressive, bop-styled composition, “Misguided Perceptions,” which has what Sims calls a “cyclic form,” where it begins and ends in a similar manner, and is a splendid way to close out the album. Like many of his other works, Sims has also furnished fans and/or potential listeners an online version (again, with a different band). [The Amazon link is only for the MP3 file, which is all they carry…Ed.]

TrackList: Conundrum; Forgotten; Cork Street Blues; Treacherous Persona; Beyond My Window; Foiled; The Eleventh Hour; Solitude; Misguided Perceptions.

—Doug Simpson

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