By Michael Ullman
Whether playing together or apart, on this 1981 recording the two saxophonists couldn’t sound more gracefully inspired or more compatible.
Art Pepper and Zoot Sims, Jam Session (bandcamp)
Once, when I was interviewing Art Pepper just after he had published his autobiography (Straight Life), the alto saxophonist recalled a club date that had been going smoothly — until the unexpected arrival, saxophone in hand, of Sonny Stitt, a musician who needed competition in order to play his best. Stitt proceeded to stroll on stage and he played, at Pepper’s estimate, 50 choruses of blues. There seemed to be nothing left to play. As he spoke, Pepper visibly tightened up — his entire body seemed to have knotted up. He was gazing anxiously back at a confrontation that had been a matter of life or death. I asked the saxophonist what he did that night. His answer was simple: Stitt had played everything else, so Pepper played himself.
I hear no such primal tension in this sweetly swinging recording, made at UCLA in 1981, featuring Pepper and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. Whether playing together or apart, the two musicians couldn’t sound more gracefully inspired or more compatible. The live recording is a bit mysterious. Most of the tracks feature the marvelous pianist (and sometime vibes player) Victor Feldman, who after a career in London skipped from the East Coast to become a vital member of the L.A. jazz scene. (He played vibes with Woody Herman. He’s also on half of Miles Davis’s 1963 Seven Steps to Heaven session, on which he played “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Basin Street Blues.“) Five of the six numbers on Jam Session feature a rhythm section that includes two other stars: Ray Brown on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. (You can profitably spend much of your time appreciating Brown’s bass lines.) That appears to be the core group. But guitarist Barney Kessel joins the band on “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Broadway.” Maybe this was essentially a Zoot Sims group. Pepper lays out on three tracks (out of six) but is featured on what was a standard for him — “Over the Rainbow,” where Charlie Haden is the bassist.
I am sure the six tunes here were unrehearsed. (I can’t imagine Sims rehearsing.) Perhaps only the opener, Denzil Best’s bop standard “Wee,” and the closer, an improvised blues labeled “Breakdown Blues,” could properly be called jam sessions. Sims and Pepper play the theme of “Wee (Allen’s Alley)” in a fast unison before they improvise together on the bridge. Then Sims takes off on a typically brightly swinging solo. At first Feldman lays out and one can listen to the way Sims bounces off of Brown’s lines. It’s Sims at (nearly) his best, including the occasional honks and gritty growls. Pepper takes over, sounding (of course) more intense as he engages these familiar rhythm changes. Momentarily Pepper brings in some of the swirling lines he picked up from Coltrane. Feldman’s light-fingered, witty solo follows, his style reminding this listener that he is also a vibes player.
It is Feldman who introduces “Breakdown Blues.”Sims and Pepper then play a chorus on which they improvise together, or against each other. Then Sims takes a proper solo. Pepper’s tone is more tart here: he nearly barks out some phrases. When Feldman lays out we can again hear Brown and Higgins do what they do best. To begin his solo, Feldman plays a chorus of mostly block chords, as if some modesty will help a transition from Pepper’s intensity. Amusingly, Brown begins his solo by quoting “See See Rider” while Higgins plays a march rhythm behind him. Brown’s solo is a gem, and it is well recorded so we can wallow in his uniquely beautiful tone. The tune ends with another few choruses of group improvisation.
I have half a dozen Pepper versions of “Over the Rainbow.” The one on Jam Session begins with a probing, unaccompanied solo by Pepper, after which he seems to float slowly into the melody, the way people fall into feather beds in ads. Yet to my ears he is never nakedly sentimental. Sims’s ballad feature is a more unusual choice. “In the Middle of a Kiss” is a song that singer Connie Boswell recorded in the ’30s, and pianist Art Tatum in 1935, but which Sims made his own, recording it repeatedly in the ’70s long after everyone else forgot it. Sims approaches the tune with a kind of exaggerated swing: on each held note he plays a wide vibrato not heard elsewhere. I imagine him listening in his head to Boswell as he plays. The other tunes are the familiar “Broadway” and the inevitable “Girl From Ipanema.” The principals play as well as ever on these tracks, which to me means they are playing as well in their style as just about anybody. The invaluable bonuses: solos by Kessel, Brown, and Feldman … and the brush work of Higgins.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.