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Tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims was born in Inglewood, California on October 29, 1925. He died on March 23, 1985 in New York City. When he first took up music he played both drums and clarinet but at age 13, inspired by sax legend Lester Young, Sims took up the tenor sax. By the time he was 15 he had landed his first professional gig, with bandleader Bobby Sherwood and his orchestra. A few years later he began what would become an on-again, off-again relationship with Benny Goodman and his orchestra that would span three decades.

World War II took him away for 1944-1946, and when he returned he once again joined Goodman’s crew. As time moved on and Sims did too he found himself working with the “A-list” of jazz, people like Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw, Roy Eldridge, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, and others.
Live At Falcon Lair, recorded 1956, Pablo
Zoot Sims was featured on numerous recordings, both under his own name and as a sideman. The album I would like to tell you about this time around was recorded in 1956 but not released until 2004. The title is “Live At Falcon Lair.”
One major point of interest here, besides the fact that Sims makes a rare appearance playing alto sax instead of tenor, is that Falcon Lair was not a music club, but rather was the home of Joe Castro’s wife, Doris Duke, whom he had married earlier in 1956. The home had quite a history, having once belonged to Rudolph Valentino. If you like, you can read about it and take a tour of sorts on the Rudolph Valentino web site.
Falcon Lair was, to say the least, a remarkable home, and Castro enjoyed inviting musicians over to jam. Often he would record those sessions, which is lucky for us because that is how this album came about.
The personnel for this session were as follows:
Zoot Sims, alto sax
Joe Castro, piano
Leroy Vinnegar, bass
Ron Jefferson, drums
“Live At Falcon Lair” opens with one of the most readily recognizable songs in jazz, the Dizzy Gillespie/Frank Paparelli classic “A Night In Tunisia.” Castro and Vinnegar jump right in and take the head and the rest follow quickly. In the hands of these guys this song swings and I mean hard. Vinnegar works that bass so hard you’d think his fingers would bleed. Sims’ playing on the sax is so smooth that the notes just seem to melt out of his horn.
Between them, Vinnegar and Jefferson drive this song at high speed from start to finish. It’s exhausting just listening to this and imagining the effort to produce this fast-paced, deep groovin’ sound.
Another standard follows, “Pennies From Heaven,” from the fertile minds of Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston. The rhythm section nails this one, also, and if you love the hard-driving sound of the walking bass and sparkling percussion like I do, you’re gonna love this song.
For a somewhat of a change of pace, the next number is the Isham Jones/Gus Kahn ballad, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” However, even on a quiet little ballad like this the rhythm section still burns it up, and don’t say I didn’t warn you if you find yourself nodding your head in time with Vinnegar and Jefferson as they take this warm, mellow tune and turn the heat up.
Castro and Sims more than take care of their parts, of course, and I’m not damning with faint praise when I say that. But for these first three songs, the guys in the rhythm section are the real stars whom everything and everyone else revolves around.
The next song is one I never heard of before, “It’s Always You,” written by the aforementioned Johnny Burke, teamed this time with James Van Heusen. This is an interesting number that lacks the driving, burning passion you can feel in the earlier songs but nonetheless provides a nice interlude. Jefferson gets a nice long solo that allows him to show off his exquisite brushwork, while Vinnegar and Castro keep him company.
One of three songs written by Joe Castro is up next, “Blues For Nat.” This is another song that swings hard right out of the starting gate, although by now the guys have allowed the intensity to fall back a notch or two. Castro opens, backed by Vinnegar and Jefferson, and then Sims steps forward and gives that alto a hell of a workout. When Sims hands it back to the others Castro once again takes the lead, his fingers racing over the keyboard while Vinnegar and Jefferson follow.
I’m running out of time, so I’m going to skip ahead to the final song on this memorable album. That would be another Castro original, “J.C. Blues.” From the opening note this one burns with an intensity that never wavers as the song rushes along. As I mentioned earlier, these guys swing hard, and this song is no exception. Even the quiet interlude with Vinnegar and Castro alone feels like it has a white hot intensity. This is a great song and a wonderful way to close the set.
The album “Live At Falcon Lair”, much like the home in which it was recorded and named after, is a remarkable piece of work that will well serve the memories of everyone involved in its creation. I firmly believe you will find that it deserves a spot on your personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other night!
There are a seemingly endless number of Zoot Sims songs on YouTube, but I was unable to locate any from this album. So we’ll have to “settle for” a performance from 1956, the same year “Live At Falcon Lair” was recorded, featuring Sims along with Bob Brookmeyer:
And from 1974, here is Zoot Sims and the Bucky Pizzarelli Quartet:
You can learn more about Zoot Sims and his music by visiting this unofficial web site. Also, Steven A. Cerra has assembled a remarkable retrospective of Zoot Sims on his blog, which you can access here.
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Copyright © 2013 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.