Zoot Sims had a problem. Since emerging in the late '40s as a member of Woody Herman's Second Herd and the celebrated sax ensemble, the Four Brothers, Sims' finest work has always been collaborative. His sessions with Al Cohn and more recently Count Basie and Joe Venuti have forged some of the most straightforward swing in the '70s.
To recreate that sound in a live setting, it's essential that Sims establish a firm rapport with the rhythm section, traditionally his base of operation and inspiration.
Last night at Blues Alley, Sims solved that problem by bringing into town a group fronted by Jimmy Rowles. Rowles' piano style is always economic, but he has a playful right hand that is a perfect foil for Zoot's earthy lyricism on tenor. Taking a solo turn, Rowles distinguished himself in his composition "Peacock," ably supported by Frank Tate on bass and Mousey Alexander on drums. Sims and Rowles are naturals on record and off. And the book of jazz standards they performed was enlivened by a common feel for subtle blues phrasing.
There was a time when Zoot Sims couldn't find a recording label that would have him. Now the only problem he faces is living up to some of his recordings in concert. Last night he proved he could.
Zoot Sims appears at Blues Alley through Sunday.