The great jazz drummer Pete Sims was born on April 7, 1938, in New York City, and passed away on November 20, 2012. He gained early professional experience playing timbales in Latin groups, and it was during this period that he acquired his nickname, La Roca, which translates to “the rock.”
Sims’ time feel had an attitude and a constant propulsion, and the drummer’s rhythmic ideas always left the listener surprised. One example of this is the way Sims placed accents in unexpected places within a phrase. In a 1998 MD interview, he spoke about his approach and experience. “Back when I was studying Stravinsky,” Sims recalled, “I came across the idea that you don’t always have to finish an idea. Once you’ve set it up, the listener’s ear knows what the conclusion is, so you can do something else. You might think that he has left an idea unfinished, but he’s really relying on your ear to resolve it.”
When asked how his background in classical music helped shape his jazz drumming, Sims replied, “I started playing kettle drums in junior high, and my teacher really taught us how to enjoy music. I did two years there, and then I went to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. I did four years there on kettle drums, and then I played in the City College Orchestra. During most of that period I wasn’t playing traps, only kettle drums. You have to count a lot of bars of rests as a kettle drummer. So when you actually make an entrance, it’s an event! I’m applying my basic experience with how [classical composers] used the drums, as opposed to typical jazz drumming. It’s always totally responsive to what is occurring around it.”
Sims’ drum sound on record was extremely musical, and his snare was crisp and dry. His ability to draw tone from the kit could be a direct result of his experience playing timpani.
At fiery up-tempos, Sims’ cymbal phrasing straightens out and becomes dynamically balanced.
Sims’ main comping sources were his snare and bass drum, and the repetitive riff-style rhythms he created helped provide tension in the groove. For a sample, check out “Drew’s Blues” from the Jackie McLean recording Bluesnik. Each riff has a lift and roll that recalls rhythms you’d hear from Elvin Jones. As you practice each phrase, strive for a consistent sound among your limbs without sacrificing the forward propulsion on the ride cymbal.
For a taste of Sims’ Brazilian playing, check out Joe Henderson’s recording Page One. La Roca plays the grooviest sounding bossa nova beats on “Blue Bossa” (Example 9) and during the intro to “Recorda Me” (Example 10) by changing texture with his rimclick, brush, and hi-hat.
Sims was great at knowing what to play and when to play it, and he really knew how to listen to the musicians on the bandstand and respond accordingly to help move the music forward. A very fine recording of Pete’s is his first as a leader, Basra. Check out the intro solo and first chorus of time from “Candu.” Pete’s solo statements frame the melody perfectly, and his mambo feel is loose and slinky.
For a sample of Sims’ solo vocabulary, let’s take a look at the four choruses of blues he trades on the track “Homestretch” from the aforementioned Page One by Joe Henderson. His time feel has an edge that recalls Philly Joe Jones, mixed with language and phrasing reminiscent of Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Jimmy Cobb.