Saxophonist Ian Sims' appropriately titled album 'Conundrum'

City Paper

When the Baltimore Jazz Alliance announced a composition competition in April 2013, it provided just the spark that young tenor saxophonist Ian Sims needed. He had been out of college a few years and had been playing jazz around town. He intended to make a record at some point, but he kept putting it off.

As soon as he read the announcement, however, he started working on a new composition that he eventually called ‘Conundrum.’ He submitted it in June, was named one of the four winners in August, and played the tune with his quintet in September at the Baltimore Jazz Composers’ Showcase. This inspired him to pull an all-star quintet together and record his debut album last year in New Jersey. This Saturday that album, also called “Conundrum,” will have its release party at Johns Hopkins’ Mattin Center.

“I’d been thinking about recording for a while,” Sims admits, “and the competition made me get serious about it. At the showcase, people really responded to the tune, and I enjoyed playing it with the band. That made me think that maybe I had enough original compositions to cut an album. I didn’t want to do standards on my first album, because originals are what define your sound and style. The artists I really admire did their own compositions from the start and only recorded standards once they’d established who they were.”

The album kicks off with the title track. Paul Bollenback announces one melody with clipped guitar chords. Sims announces a second theme with a sustained, lower-register sax line that is quickly countered by Alex Norris’ skipping, high-register notes on the trumpet. The three lead instruments weave through the entire piece, sometimes aligning on the same theme for a while, sometimes playing in counterpoint, always over the brisk pulse of drummer E.J. Strickland and bassist Ed Howard. The ‘Conundrum’ title fits the tune, for it’s never clear whether the different themes will finally cohere. They do.

Sims was able to pull this impressive band together because he’s so well-connected in the local jazz scene. Not only was he a longtime student at Peabody, but he’s now working there as co-director of the Jazz Performance Academy at Peabody Preparatory, as jazz studies academic coordinator at the Peabody Conservatory, and as chief administrative officer for jazz at the Hopkins Club. He helps jazz studies director and chair Gary Thomas organize administrative duties at Peabody and was able to recruit jazz faculty members Bollenback and Norris for the session. And because he runs the logistics for jazz at the Hopkins Club, he was able to befriend two of the sidemen who played there: Strickland and Howard. This same quintet will reunite for Saturday’s show in Baltimore and for a show at New York’s Somethin’ Else Jazz Club Feb. 19.

Growing up in Stephens City, Virginia, 10 miles south of Winchester, Sims was lucky to attend a public school system that had a strong music program. His middle school band director got Sims listening to Charles Mingus and Stanley Turrentine, and the high school band director got Sims listening to Count Basie and Duke Ellington. As excited as he was about music, though, Sims was just as excited about science, so he looked for colleges where he could do both. He ended up getting a B.M. in jazz studies and a B.S. in electrical engineering.

“I’ve always loved problem solving,” says Sims, now 29. He sits in a booth at Chocolatea near Hopkins’ Homewood campus, wearing a pullover, blue-striped jersey, his unguarded face framed by brown bangs and a square jaw. “There’s a lot of problem solving in engineering but also in music.

“My choice for college came down to Hopkins/Peabody and the University of Michigan, and the deciding factor was Gary [Thomas]. When I visited Peabody, I took a lesson with him, and I was impressed that he doesn’t just hand you pieces of knowledge. He teaches you the process, so you can learn how to practice and keep learning things on your own after you leave school.”

Because they’re both tenor saxophonists, Thomas and Sims worked closely together when the latter was a student and have continued to work together after Sims graduated. When Hopkins President Ronald Daniels approached Thomas about the idea of using the Homewood Campus’ Hopkins Club as a venue for bringing in big-name jazz acts, Thomas jumped at the chance and tapped Sims to handle the detail work. The spring schedule features the Greg Osby 4 Feb. 21, the Tarbaby Trio (Orrin Evans, Eric Revis and Nasheet Waits) with special guest Gary Thomas March 7, and the John Patitucci Electric Guitar Quartet April 25.

“The series is great for the Baltimore jazz community,” Sims says, “because it brings in performers who might not otherwise come to Baltimore. It complements the other venues in town. It’s great for the Peabody jazz program, because we often get a master class out of it for our students. And it’s great for me, because I get to hang out with some of the greatest musicians in the world. I got to pick up Roy Haynes at the airport, for example, and talk with him all the way back to Baltimore. If he can be as energetic as he is at 89, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.”

Ian Sims and Divergent Paths perform on Feb. 7 at Johns Hopkins University’s Mattin Center.

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