If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer
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Beautiful yet largely forgotten ballads unearthed and given a stunning jazz make-over by tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims and pianist Jimmy Rowles. Tag this one as buried treasure. Background
For more about Sims and Rowles, go to the If I'm Lucky
in the "Getting Into Jazz" series.
albums are among the very best of the 25 or so churned out by Sims for the Pablo label from the mid-1970's to the early '80s. That's partly because Rowles was at the piano during these two sessions. His assertive, quirky, sometimes dangerously dissonant style seemed to stimulate Sims' creative juices, possibly adding challenge to the chore of recording.
Those long-forgotten, seldom played songs must have posed another challenge for Sims and Rowles, opening up new possibilities for jazz interpretation. "I haven't done this one before" might have been a welcome kick in the pants for a couple of seasoned musicians.
This album has a couple of other major strengths. The first is Akira Tana, who blesses us with a 44 minute lesson in the jazz drummer's art. Tana is, thankfully, neither a pounder nor a showboat, but he's not just keeping time, either. He's so tight and light in his playing, so aware of what the other musicians are doing, so skillful in creating rhythmic variations to support them, that listening to him alone would make this CD worthwhile.
Finally, there's the quality of the recording. The sound is exceptionally clean and bright, and the separation between the instruments is so distinct you can clearly follow the bass and drums as they create their own lines of musiclike making out the individual threads in a tapestry.
Not every song on this disc is obscure. If you're looking for jazz standards, you'll find an excellent version of "I Can't Get Started" amid the rarities. CD Highlights Track 4, "In the Middle of a Kiss"
To put Sims' rendition of this tune into perspective, you might want to try Julie London's whispery version before you begin. Then listen as Sims blows real substance into this song in just the first few bars, digging down and coming up with something beautiful. By 01:27, when he begins to improvise, he's shown us how a consummate musician can transform a plain tune into a glorious one.
His improvisation is straightforward, insistent, logical. It's followed at 3:00 by a fine bass solo, and then, at 3:40, Rowles lays out his variations in strong, declarative statements that cut to the heart of the tune. Notice how his playing is stripped of embroiderynone of the trills, frills and flourishes that pianists sometimes use to show off and fill space. At 4:24, Sims is back for another chorus of improvisation, and then at 5:10 he winds things up with the straight melody. Track 1, "Brahms, I Think"
In breathing new life into old songs, Sims and Rowles don't just stick to forgotten pop ballads. In this track, they appropriate one of those classical pieces you've heard dozens of times and can never quite identifyhence the track's perfect title.
If you're wondering what instrument Sims is using here, it's a soprano saxwhich, depending on pitch, may remind you of either a violin or a clarinet with a bad cold. (If you're a movie buff, you've heard a soprano sax in the opening credits of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris.") Unlike the big, open, naturally cool sound of the tenor sax, the soprano's sound is constricted, sharp-edged, insistent, emotionally charged. Notice how that built-in passion comes across in this track. Sims may be playing the same notes on the soprano that he would have played on the tenor, but the instrument itself raises the heat.
As Sims opens the track, playing the song as written, this is your cue to scratch your head and poke your musical memory. Is it Brahms, or isn't it? While you're pondering that, notice the beat, which is alternating between Latin and standard jazz, providing a nice extra jolt. Between 0:54 and 2:27, Sims digs in and blows two soaring, searing choruses of improvisation, squeezing every drop of juice from that beautiful old melody. Take it or leave it, the soprano sax does not speak the language of cool.
From 2:28 to 3:14, while Rowles plays some beautiful piano improvisations, pay special attention to the drums of Akira Tana and the bass of George Mraz. This is not a piano solo with rhythm section, it's a trio of equals, and the interplay is marvelous. At 3:14, Sims is back to reprise the original melody. So is it Brahms? Track 6, "Never Let Me Go"
The singer Irene Kral recorded a beautiful rendition of this song, backed by just piano. You might want to try it as an appetizer before you tuck into Sims' version. As Sims blows the straight melody to open the track, focus your attention on Rowles' piano. Listen to how he responds to Sims, filling in the silences with quiet conversation. Sims' improvisation begins at 1:46. There's a nice touch between 2:20 and 2:30, when piano, bass and drums play in double time while Sims maintains the original pace, raising the pulse of the performance. But the most memorable part of this track comes from 3:15 to 4:05, when Rowles, Tana and Mraz play as a trio (as they did in the "Brahms" track). In fifty wonderful seconds, those three demonstrate what makes the best jazz stand out: intelligence, imagination, collaboration, warmth, a love of melody.