Zoot Sims – Down Home – Bethlehem Records BCP 6051 (1960)/ Pure Pleasure Records (2013) 180-gram mono vinyl, 41:26 ****:
(Zoot Sims – tenor saxophone; Dave McKenna – piano; George Tucker – bass; Dannie Richmond – drums)
With one of the coolest names in jazz, it is not surprising that Zoot Sims was a creative force. A child of vaudeville performers, this Inglewood native learned to play clarinet and the drums. When he switched to tenor saxophone, he began to establish a legacy in the footsteps of masters like Lester Young. He was drawn to big band music. After dropping out of high school, he played with Benny Goodman prior to World War II. After the war, he played with Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and Artie Shaw. Sims frequently toured with Gerry Mulligan’s Sextet and The Mulligan Concert Jazz Band.
His specialty was swing and he fronted his own bands. In the 50s and 60s, his partnership with Al Cohn defined his recording and performance career. Later, he also played alto and soprano saxophone. Sims recorded into the 80s with a variety of jazz musicians, including Sweets Edison, Ray Brown, Count Basie, Art Pepper, Oscar Peterson and Jack Kerouac, among many others. He was part of the ground-breaking Bethlehem Records label, whose catalogue drew critical praise and is being heard by a new generation of enthusiasts.
Recorded in 1960 (when tenor players were adopting less structured constructs), Down Home embraces band arrangements. With a skilled rhythm section (Dave McKenna/piano; George Tucker/bass and Dannie Richmond/drums), Sims breathes life into traditional songs. As Side One opens with a pair of Basie covers. “Jive At Five” revels in a jaunty, swing feel. Resplendent with hot licks on tenor, the quartet achieves a “live” fluency. McKenna offers a cohesive, rhythmic counter on piano (including some higher register notation). “Doggin’ Around” ratchets up the muscular hard-driving interaction. Sims stretches the tonality, but manages to sustain a percolating tempo. McKenna showcases his lightning-quick right hand, and the bass/drum anchor grooves in hi-drive. There are several drum brakes that do justice to the spirit of The Count. The ensemble keeps their collective foot on the gas pedal on “Avalon”. This is more energetic than standard arrangements of the past. Rounding out the side is an excellent re-working of “I Cried For You”. This track combines the steady propulsion of big band with a graceful, melodic saxophone lead.
Side Two resurrects the Dixieland classic, “Bill Bailey”. Of course, this version is pure swing. Another departure from typical standard arrangements is “Goodnight Sweetheart”, unshackled from bandstand sentiment. Sims and company are consistent in their up tempo, festive mood. Predictable (if not repetitive), the music is accessible. The final piece, “I’ve Heard That Blues Before” breaks from the framework with a harmonic bluesy attitude.
Pure Pleasure Records has achieved its customary, dynamic engineering on Zoot Sims – Down Home. Even in mono fidelity, the overall sound quality is vibrant and sharp. The topical liner notes (by Ira Gitler) divulge insight into the sessions. While not a groundbreaking release, this is one album that stands the test of time.
Side A: Jive At Five; Doggin’ Around; Avalon; I Cried For You (Now It’s Your Time To Cry Over Me)
Side B: Bill Bailey; Goodnight Sweetheart; There’ll Be Some Changes Made; I’ve Heard That Blues Before