When critics make those lists of the 100 best jazz saxophonists, Zoot Sims usually gets mentioned somewhere in the middle, sometimes closer to the bottom. Although his name is well known, he rarely, if ever, makes it to the very top of such lists. Those spots are reserved for the creative innovators, the Charlie Parkers, the John Coltranes, and talented though he was, no one is going to put Sims in their category. But as you go down the lists, it becomes harder and harder to make distinctions between musicians, and by the time you get past the first 10 or so, it begins to seem like a pointless exercise. Whether Lee Konitz is better than Bud Shank is at best a subjective judgment.
That Zoot Sims, however, was one swinging sax man is simply an objective truth. All you have to do is listen to him play on the Original Jazz Classics Remastered reissue of his 1975 album Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers. Sims was born to play the Gershwin’s music. Familiar melodies with harmonies and rhythms ripe for improvisation, these were tunes made for the jazz ensemble. It is no accident that they are recorded again and again; they are the stuff that musical dreams are made of.
The original album had Sims playing with an all-star line-up. The great Oscar Peterson played piano, Joe Pass was on guitar, an underrated George Mraz handled bass, and Grady Tate was the drummer. You would be hard put to find a more stellar rhythm section back then or even today for that matter.
The 10 tracks from the original album begin with “The Man I Love,” a tune that had been recorded by one of Sims’ great influences, Lester Young. As Benny Green points out in the original liner notes, echoes of Young’s performance are all over Sims’ work, not only on this song, but on a good bit of the rest of the album. Like others had done, they take what was written as a lullaby and swing it uptempo, as they do again with the slow ballad “Summertime,” which ends the set. There is also a jumping version of “I Got Rhythm” and a sweet take on “Embraceable You” with a guitar introduction from Pass.
The re-release includes three tracks not on the original album: two previously unreleased alternate takes, “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” as well as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers is straight-ahead jazz played with joy and soul. It may not be avant garde jazz, but it is great jazz.