What’s that, Thomas Wolfe, about not being able to go home again? Tell that to Jared Sims.
In 1996, the saxophonist was graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in jazz studies. Twenty years later, having made his mark in New England as a musician, bandleader, educator, and all-around musical instigator, and acquired two graduate degrees, he returned to his alma mater to head up its jazz studies program.
How successful has Sims’s homecoming been? Very, judging by his potent new album, Change of Address.
Sticking to his favorite instrument, the baritone saxophone, Sims leads an airtight, organ-dappled quintet on a set of bristling originals—some of which, as indicated by the album title, reflect on his recent uprooting. Among them: the slinky, grooving “Offer for Wilson,” inspired by the complications he and his wife went through in buying their new house, and the pensive, Ornette Coleman/”Lonely Woman”–influenced “Leap of Faith,” which is about “making a big decision and sticking to it.”
As highlighted by “Seeds of Shihab,” a tribute to baritone saxophone great Sahib Shihab, Change of Address luxuriates in the brawny, bottom-rich sound of the instrument, to which Sims became dedicated after bringing a tenor to class at the New England Conservatory and having his instructor chide him he would never be great on it because he would be following in the footsteps of too many legends.
Far from taking offense, Sims took his teacher’s words to heart. “There are a lot of gold standards on tenor,” he says. “Coltrane, obviously, and Sonny Rollins, and for later generations Bob Berg and Michael Brecker. I was trying to find a way to move past those influences. Playing the baritone felt really natural to me. I felt like I could do something personal and interesting with it.”
Sims does that and more on Change of Address, on which he is joined by an intriguing collection of players for whom he wrote its tunes, Ellington-style. They include the wife-and-husband team of organist Nina Ott and bassist Chris Lopes (a longtime crony of guitarist Jeff Parker), and a pair of young Boston-area veterans in guitarist Steve Fell and drummer Jared Seabrook (older brother of guitar provocateur Brandon).
One of the first things that strikes you about the album is the energy and concision of the playing: there is nary an ounce of fat on this music, which applies an urgent up-to-the-minute sensibility to jazz-soul tradition. The bold and bright personality of the music closely follows.
“I’m never gonna fit the mold of the celebrated jazz musician,” says Sims. “I like rock, I like funk, I like classical. I like all kinds of music.” Or, as he said when he became jazz studies director at WVU’s School of Music, “I’m not looking to mentor the greatest jazz musicians of 1959.”
Sims was born in Staunton, Virginia on August 30, 1974 (he’s “a little sore,” he says, that he missed the birthday of Lester Young and Charlie Parker by one day). Though some distant relatives of his were involved in music, including a cousin “who was into space travel—she was Lady Gaga before Lady Gaga”—his immediate family was more involved in the visual arts.
But Sims has indelible memories of listening to ’60s and ’70s honky tonk in his father’s pickup truck, and having the epiphany at the tender age of five that there was an element of blues in everything he heard. (Among the songs he has covered are two Hank Williams classics, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Jambalaya.”) His first instrument was the piano; he begged for lessons so he could learn to read sheet music. At 10, he ordered a saxophone, an alto, without having any idea what it was.
“When it came in the mail, I took it out of the box and put it together wrong,” he says. “A piece of it fell on the floor. But I caught on pretty quick.”
He emptied the local library of saxophone recordings. The first album that really hit home was a late-’70s import by Lucky Thompson with Cedar Walton on electric piano. He listened to a wide range of material, from Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way to Glenn Miller swing band recordings. “I was super into it from the start,” he says.
He was given a baritone saxophone to play in fifth grade because he was large in stature and hyperactive in his interests. “They were trying to keep me occupied,” he says. “There were not a ton of opportunities to play, but I knew I was pretty good.” He performed in various school bands and was selected for all-state ensembles.
He attended his first jazz concert, by Michael Brecker, in tenth grade, and saw the World Saxophone Quartet perform the following year. His fascination with the saxophone went “over the top” after he spoke with members of the WSQ following the show.
At WVU, he had a strong saxophone teacher in David Hastings, who schooled him in traditional styles. At the New England Conservatory, where he played clarinet in addition to baritone, alto, and tenor, he tried to catch up to all the kinds of music he hadn’t been exposed to, including Third Stream, under the wing of distinguished faculty members Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and Ran Blake.
He went on to study for his doctorate (in classical music performance) at Boston University, where his lecture recital was on the modern Italian composer Luciano Berio and his solo Sequenza pieces. He also did research work on Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and American popular music.
“I’m a bit torn about telling people openly that I have a doctorate,” Sims says, “because often people with doctorates in music are marginalized as people who can’t play very well.” But when you can tell people that you also studied with George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi, a pair of heavy Boston jazz legends, and you can play the saxophone with such power and uplift, you don’t have to worry about hiding any degrees.
While living in Boston, where he earned a reputation as a “saxophone colossus,” Sims roomed for four years with standout baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase, a cog in Either/Orchestra, who turned him onto Sahib Shihab. One of his mentors was NEC (and, since 2008, Berklee School of Music) instructor Allan Chase, with whom he continues to play in a band, Blow-up!, dedicated to the music of bebop baritone legend Serge Chaloff (they’re recording in March 2017). He and Chase switch off on baritone.
He played in numerous bands including the Afro-Latin group Mango Blue (in which he continues to perform); the organ funk outfit Akashic Record; Blueprint Project with guitarist Eric Hofbauer, and the jazz-rock quartet Miracle Orchestra.
“The music sounded a lot like the current band Kneebody,” he says. “We had a booking agent and a band van and traveled a lot across the country.” Miracle Orchestra made themselves known in New York at the late and lamented avant-garde space, the Knitting Factory, with a Friday night gig that stretched to 14 weeks.
The list of notable musicians with whom Sims has kept musical company is long and intriguing, including the late Bob Brookmeyer, Han Bennink, Matt Wilson, Dave Liebman, Anat Cohen, the Temptations, 10,000 Maniacs, and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher.
He made his recording debut as a leader with the trio effort Acoustic Shadows (2009). He followed it with another three-man effort, Convergence (2011), the collective quartet album The New Stablemates (2012), on which he was joined on the front line by trumpeter Eric Bloom, and Layers (2016), on which he overdubs himself on saxophones, clarinets, and flute on tunes by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus.
On the educational front, Sims taught jazz and classical saxophone at the University of Rhode Island from 2005 to 2016. As assistant director of jazz studies, he directed the school’s big band at the Newport Jazz Festival four times. He co-founded the Newport Jazz Camp, a summer program for high school musicians. He also has taught at the University of New Hampshire and Southern New Hampshire University.
You might think that in moving from urban New England to the West Virginia university town of Morgantown, Sims gravitated to a quieter, less hectic place. In fact, he says, it’s noisier and busier where he now lives than it was in Boston, where he and his wife, a New York native, lived next to a cemetery— and where, he swears, he would hear a ghost rustling around overhead whenever he practiced alone in his basement office.
He recalls that eerie experience on “Ghost Guest 1979,” which showcases a full range of textural effects from Fell and, perhaps thanks to the intimate connection between Ott and Lopes, uncommonly seamless interaction between bass and Hammond B-3: “The grounded Midwest sensibility that Nina and Chris have definitely lends a different quality than you hear in New England, where things are more abstract and less organic.”
The album’s other highlights include the sprightly, wide-open “Lights and Colors,” which addresses the composer’s distaste for playing music in the dark and in soundproof spaces, and “Forest Hills,” inspired not by that section of Queens, but the same-named Boston neighborhood in which he lived.
“I’m a bit obsessed with geography,” says Sims, pointing out there also is a Forest Hills in Pittsburgh, where he frequently performs. While the jazz fans of New England no doubt regret his departure—even if he does often make it back to Boston to perform—hip music lovers in the Mountain State have to be thrilled by his longitudinal move, and hoping he won’t be changing his address again anytime soon.