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Zoot Sims: Down Home

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Since last August, Verse Music Group and Naxos of America have been reissuing albums originally released on the Bethlehem Records label, launched in 1953 by Gustav Wildi and thriving for several years until being absorbed by the larger King Records. Twenty titles (of the more than 250 released by Bethlehem) were rolled out digitally in the iTunes Store simultaneously, and those same albums are being doled out piecemeal on CD and vinyl. The three that comprise the second batch-albums by Bobby Troup, Zoot Sims and a Donald Byrd/Pepper Adams pairing-amplify the importance of the label, but there is room for improvement in the presentation.

The Songs of Bobby Troup, released after the iTunes launch, is a prime example. Although he was an actor, singer and pianist, Troup is best known as a songwriter-his “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” was recorded by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones and Depeche Mode-but in January 1955 (the back cover claims the sessions took place in September; most discographies say January) he cut an album’s worth of Johnny Mercer tunes for Bethlehem. Those tracks were apparently released as two different albums, the 12-inch, 12-song Bobby Troup Sings Johnny Mercer and a 10-inch, eight-song version that comprises this reissue. None of that convolution is made very clear in the packaging or the subpar period liner notes, and in an era that routinely sees copiously annotated deluxe reissues offering detailed session info and much more, that is unacceptable. Although the reproductions of the original cover art are charming, the packaging overall is inadequate in comparison to most of today’s elaborately appointed reissues.

As for the music itself, much of it is sublime, some unexceptional. Troup, for one, was never much of a vocalist, but he gives it his best on the Mercer standards. “That Old Black Magic” houses swinging solos by Troup and guitarist Howard Roberts, and Troup’s vocals on bluesy ballads like “Skylark” and “Midnight Sun” are reminiscent of Chet Baker’s honeyed delivery.

Sims’ Down Home, recorded in July 1960 (information nowhere to be found in the package) features the saxophonist in a quartet setting with Dave Mc-Kenna (piano), George Tucker (bass) and Dannie Richmond (drums). It’s a loose, jumping set, free of ballads and often quite frenetic. Sims blows hard on Basie’s “Doggin’ Around,” chased by McKenna’s jittery soloing, Richmond and Tucker pushing them along. Sims plays tough on an assortment of tunes that, even then, were already fairly old (“Bill Bailey,” “Avalon”), but he and his combo bring the eight songs (the last, “I’ve Heard That Blues Before,” is the only Sims original) into the ’60s with flair.

The five-track Motor City Scene is the essential gem among this trio of releases. Although recorded in New York City in 1960, it features a sextet of Detroit-based musicians-Pepper Adams, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Louis Hayes and Paul Chambers-each at the top of his game. Co-leaders Byrd (trumpet) and Adams (bari sax) turn in particularly vigorous performances on Adams’ “Philson” and both Burrell and Flanagan shine on Thad Jones’ “Bitty Ditty.”

The remastered Bethlehem reissues all boast clean, dynamic sound and historically valuable performances. But the lack of comprehensive recording information and newly written liner notes providing some perspective gives them a cheap feel. This music deserves better treatment.

Originally Published