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Pete La Roca

November 20 2012

Pete La Roca Sims 1938-2012

Drummer Pete “La Roca” Sims, who passed away November 19 after a battle with lung cancer, was born April 7, 1938 in New York City. Early in his career, he played timbales with Latin bands, acquiring his nickname (“the rock”) along the way. He began his jazz career in earnest in 1957, playing with many of the biggest names of the time for over a decade, including Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Sonny Clark, and many others. For several years, he was the house drummer at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. In 1968, he left music entirely to become a lawyer, but returned to jazz in 1979.

Sims did a lot of recording for Blue Note during the 1950s and 1960s, including appearances on some truly legendary albums, like Sonny RollinsA Night at the Village Vanguard; Joe Henderson’s Page One and Our Thing; and Freddie Hubbard’s The Night of the Cookers. He also made one album under his own name during that era, 1965’s Basra. That record, which features Henderson on tenor, Steve Kuhn on piano, and Steve Swallow on bass, packs three Sims originals, one composition by the bassist (“Eiderdown”), a version of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña,” and a take on the ballad “Lazy Afternoon” into just over 40 minutes. It combines hard bop and swing with some surprisingly avant-garde ideas (the title track hovers on a single chord for nearly 10 minutes), and the saxophonist and drummer are perfect foils for each other.

“Malagueña,” which opens the album, is a heavyweight piece that sounds close to what the John Coltrane quartet was doing at the time. Henderson’s saxophone sound is thick and muscular, frequently heading into almost skronky free jazz territory; Kuhn and Swallow push the rhythm forward with force and emphasis; and La Roca’s drumming is tightly controlled but thunderously powerful – it’s like being punched in the head sometimes, the way he rampages across the kit. But no matter how aggressively he plays, how hard he drives the band, he never loses the precision that balanced his attacking style.

He grants himself even more of a showcase on the second track, “Candu,” which is basically a piano trio track with brief interjections from Henderson’s horn. “Tears Come From Heaven” starts out as a ballad, but quickly picks up speed, and at the three-minute mark, La Roca takes a positively crushing minute-long solo, before bringing the band back in. He solos again, in a slightly more restrained fashion, on the epic title track, and keeps the band swinging hard on the final two pieces, “Lazy Afternoon” and “Eiderdown.” A terrific bridge between fierce hard bop and the more adventurous sounds of mid-60s free jazz, Basra is an album strongly deserving of wider attention.

La Roca’s style was strongly influenced by his time in Latin bands; while his mastery of swing and groove were the equal of any of his peers, he had a sharp attack on both snare and cymbals that were uniquely his, and seemed to derive from Latin rhythms. This can be heard clearly on tracks like the frantic “Minor Apprehension,” from Jackie McLean’s 1959 album New Soil. As the horns—McLean’s buzzing alto sax and Donald Byrd’s rippling trumpet—dance around each other and pianist Walter Davis Jr. and bassist Paul Chambers hold down the middle, La Roca’s drums drive the band relentlessly. The way he strikes the snare, hi-hat and cymbals gives his drumming an energy totally different from, but every bit as forceful as, legendary hitters like Art Blakey or Elvin Jones. The nearly eight-minute track’s last two and a half minutes are his, and the solo he constructs is a surprising blend of almost tribal rhythm and a freedom reminiscent of Ed Blackwell’s work with Ornette Coleman.

When he actually performed numbers that featured Latin-derived rhythms, like “Recorda Me” from Henderson’s Page One or “Sweet Cakes” from McLean’s New Soil, he was unstoppable. And when he had another rhythm player to work off of, forget about it. His interaction with conguero Big Black on the 23-minute version of “Jodo” from The Night of the Cookers is breathtaking.

Pete “La Roca” Sims might not have the miles-deep discography of players like Art Blakey, Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones or Paul Motian, but he certainly had the respect and admiration of his peers. Saxophonist Dave Liebman, who played with him in the late 1960s, wrote on Facebook, “He was my first teacher in all ways. He was a brilliant guy who after being so disenchanted with the music business became a lawyer. Over the next decades, every once in a while he would put together a group to work a few weekends in NY, but basically Pete went into sunset mode…He was by far one of the most brilliant minds I ever knew, one of the greatest musicians I ever encountered who for starters would sing the bass line in key and was a drummer like no one else. Coltrane had him before Elvin; he worked with Newk; Miles wanted him to join as did Herbie Hancock when he branched out on his own. Pete was one of a kind…a stubborn, brilliant guy who insisted on perfection.”

In a 1998 interview, pianist Ray Santisi, who worked with him in Boston, said of La Roca, “His way of playing is so liquid and communicative. Pete said to me one night, ‘You can’t play just holding down your own post.’ He was right. He believed in taking the music in whatever direction possible.”

A memorial concert for La Roca will be held at St. Peter’s Church in New York on December 28.

Enjoy this Spotify playlist of Pete "La Roca" Sims' work on Blue Note.

Photos courtesy of Mosaic Images