If you dig Zoot Sims (and who doesn't), you may be unaware of an unusual album he recorded in January 1957 on which he played four alto saxophones. The album, Zoot Sims Plays Four Altos, featured the compositions and arrangements of George Handy, who also plays piano on the date. The album is everything you'd expect—and more.
Given the cohesiveness of the charts, the album is as much Handy's as it is Zoot's. Handy was a brilliant arranger. He attended Juilliard, where he studied with Aaron Copland. In the mid-1940s, he was the iron man of the Boyd Raeburn band—the most forward-thinking orchestra of the period and the model for Stan Kenton and Claude Thornhill. Along with Handy in the Raeburn band were arrangers Johnny Mandel and Johnny Richards.
When Handy abruptly left Raeburn in late 1944 (with Hal McKusick) over the bandleader's repeated decision to give Al Cohn's solos to Johnny Bothwell, an up-and-coming alto saxophonist, Handy and McKusick for Los Angeles.
Handy went on to play piano or arrange for Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, the Dorsey brothers, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden and others. His gift was a harmonic writing style that favored the reed section, giving it a seductive and unified voice that could compete acoustically with the blare of trombones and trumpets. In 1946, he was named top arranger in Downbeat and Metronome magazines. In 1947, Esquire named Handy the best arranger of the year.
Rather than explain how Zoot wound up playing four altos, here's George Handy's explanation from the album's original liner notes:
"Last winter, ABC-Paramount suggested that I think of a new date for Zoot Sims which would have either a new touch or a different treatment. I must admit that this kept me sleepless for many a night, yet strangely enough when the idea did come to me, it came in my sleep. I had been dreaming of four Zoot Sims, all playing alto saxophone, all ad-libbing, all precision.
It sounded so good to me in my dream that I woke up and started thinking about how to make this dream a reality. After a few hours of thought, I had it worked out in my mind. It would have to be done in two recording sessions.
The first date was going to be simple. I took seven standard harmonic movements and wrote melodies to them all. These seven arrangements were very simple indeed and were played by Zoot Sims (alto saxophone), Knobby Totah (bass), Nick Stabulas (drums), and myself on piano.
The date went off as planned, a very pleasing relaxing session for all, a good listener's session for the rhythm section, and a free-freedom of expression session for Zoot. A few days later I picked up the tapes of this, the first date, and returned home to begin the more difficult work—the work of making four altos sound as spontaneous as the one which had already recordingly done the thing, swing! Little did I know what lay in store for me.
The next job was to be a simple one, so I thought. It was to transcribe on manuscript paper every note Zoot played at the first session. But I found myself faced with more than notes. There were slurs, slides, slitherings, spacious soarings, false notes, blue notes, whisperings of notes, non-existent noes, grace notes, million of pieces of notes—Zoot Sims' notes, all to be interpreted through a medium that would give the reader of the kaleidoscopic notes perfect reproductive powers.
For anyone else, the reading of this next section of music would be a difficult one; but having Zoot again as the further performer in quadruplicate, the chances for similarity and identity would be enhanced by 100%.
Yes, after taking all his solos off the first date tape, I was going to harmonize everything he had played in four parts, leaving lines for three other altos to be added on later to the original line. Again I encountered some difficulty, for many of his passages would be impractical to harmonize.
For instance, in some solos he might dip to low, leaving no room to add three parts beneath the solo line. In other spots, he moved too quickly so that an addition of three other identical parts would create a heaviness. Then again, I heard the voices of angels in other sections, sometimes in just short phrases. These I left unharmonized, untouched, unaccompanied.
When this work was done, we were ready for the second and final date, which would have the remarkable instrumentation of Zoot on alto saxophone, a pair of earphones, and a wildly waving, bespectacled, bearded and composer and arranger (have tux, will travel).
My words will now simply state that Zoot put on earphones, the first date was piped through them, he added alto number two, then this result was piped through the earphones as he added alto number three, then the final alto part was added to the three already recorded, giving us an alto saxophone quartet, which in my opinion, is beyond compare."
Thank goodness George Handy dreamed in fours. This album is a Zoot Sims joy ride. My favorite track is Let's Not Waltz Tonight, a breezy number in which Zoot plays two simultaneous alto solos. Goodness! But there really aren't any soft spots. It's Zoot and George all the way.
The harmonies are fantastic, and all four Zoots are a hoot. How does the finished product sound? Think Supersax and Dave Pell's Prez Conference—except with George Handy's originals and inventive lines, and all the sax parts played by Zoot! The texture is meaty, tight and swinging—the musical equivalent of seeing Zoot's image in a House of Mirrors.
JazzWax tracks: Zoot Sims Plays Four Altos has been combined with another great album, Zoot!, and released on a Fresh Sound CD entitled, Zoot Sims Plays Tenor & Four Altos. The first album on the CD, Zoot!, showcases great tenor workouts on standards and George Handy originals.
JazzWax videoclip: For a look at Zoot Sims in 1956, click here to see him with Gerry Mulligan in Rome playing Walking Shoes.