Little Big Man: Jimmy Heath
|New York–While I have been culturally and spiritually enriched by every happening that I was fortunate to witness in Rose Hall, the space with the fabulous jazz acoustics that is the jewel in the crown of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as a former long time resident of Philadelphia it remained a special pleasure for me to hear the unique concert “City of Brotherly Love Jazz.” It was a Saturday night fish fry Phillistyle. While the beer and pretzels featured at the bar may have seemed a quaint oddity to some, to me it was a touch of home, another sign of the extent to which JALC is willing to go to present the music with authentic flavor. They could not have chosen a better exemplar of the Philly sound than the Heath Brothers, around whom an all-star Philly bred ensemble was built; they are the Philadelphia equivalent of the magnificent Jones boys of Detroit: Thad, Hank, and Elvin. With Buster Williams on bass, Pat Martino on guitar, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and Joey Defrancesco on the Hammond organ and acoustic piano, joining Jimmy and Al “Tootie” Heath on Saxophones and drums, the original hard bop Sound of Philadelphia was well represented in New York City – also known amongst hip black Philadelphians as “The Fruit” – just a few moons after the Ides of March. In order to understand the recent public outbursts by the great Philadelphia born and bred Comedian, educator, businessman, philanthropist and jazz aficionado Bill Cosby, excoriating the manners and morals of the black lower class – which is really a lament for the decline of a halcyon age in black Philadelphia culture and community – one has only to observe the standard of elegance, dignity, eloquence, and artistic virtuosity exemplified by the Heath Brothers.
When the nobility of these elders, who, like Cosby himself, are cultural ambassadors from that splendid time and place, a time which Brent Staples has correctly labeled “the era of industrial prosperity,” are pitted against the banalities, vulgarities and nihilism that mar the personalities and cultural products of post-industrial Philadelphia, where gangsta rap was born, it is easy to see why it makes him wanna holler! As a counterstatement to the b- boy “street” or gang banger image prized by the rappers, the Heath Brothers are paragons of the jazz musician as creative intellectual and fashion plate. Cosby and the Heath brothers all came of age at a time when standards were set in the Afro-American community by the “Talented Tenth,” an educated and forward looking class whose existence was first noted by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1899 sociological classic, The Philadelphia Negro, and as their mission was to “uplift the race” they set the standards high.
Those high standards and reverence for excellence were all too obvious in the quality of the music performed under the Heath brother’s leadership, as all the musicians soared to exceptional levels of virtuosity, and the spirit of the music reflected the optimism of the times, which also inspired Afro-Americans in spite of pervasive racism and discrimination. Created in a city with a booming economy based upon commerce and manufacturing, with good public schools, a well educated middle class and a large population of working class home owners, it was an environment which promoted the conventional wisdom that progress was the inevitable result of hard work and study.
Hence this music is a sound portrait of the mid-century American zeitgeist; it was even popularly referred to as “Progressive Jazz.” The concert began with an original composition by Jimmy Heath titled CTA, composed in 1953 and originally recorded by the great Miles Davis. Although the piece was written over a half century ago, it sounded like it could have been conceived yesterday because like all fine art it is timeless. The piece featured Joey Defrancesco on the Hammond organ and transported me back to the Philadelphia “beer gardens” and cabarets of the late 1950’s and sixties, where one could always find beautiful barmaids, splendidly attired charming company, and great organ trios or quartets.
It was a traditional Philly Jazz sound, the original sound of Philadelphia that was popular when Rhythm and Blues writer/producers Gamble and Huff – who made millions with a R&B style popularly known as “The Sound of Philadelphia” on the wildly popular Philadelphia International record label in the 1970’s – were still in knee pants! It was readily apparent after a chorus or two that Defrancesco had absorbed, as if by osmosis, the quintessentially Philadelphia sounds of organist like the incomparable Jimmy Smith – undisputed master of the Hammond organ – Don Patterson and “The Mighty Burner,” Charlie Earland.
The tune was a hard swinging blues and announced from Jump Street that blues and swing were indispensable elements of this band’s musical project. Guitarist Pat Martino was swinging hard on his axe, leveling a thicket of rhythmic and harmonic obstacles as he soared over the changes with beautiful flowing statements. Defrancesco gave a great exhibition of right hand dexterity, as he played riffs and soloed without chording with his left hand or pumping bass lines with the foot pedals. This was a generous gesture on his part, as he refrained from cluttering up the rhythm by crowding spaces better left to Pat Martino’s Guitar and Buster William’s exquisite double bass grooves. These jazz men were master musicians who knew how to swing hard without getting in each other’s way.
In classic bop style, which demanded virtuosity from every instrumentalist, everybody had the opportunity to solo. Although they must have missed the versatile rhythms of their ever so swinging brother Percy Heath – a past master of the double bass “bull fiddle” who played with big bands, hard boppers and the cerebral Modern Jazz Quartet – the big warm lyrical sound Buster Williams coaxes from the instrument was majestic and left nothing to be desired. In fact, Buster is an original and commanding voice in a grand tradition of Philadelphia bassists that include Jimmi Merritt, Reggie Workman, Spanky De Brest, Jimmy Garrison, Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride et al.
As both the lynchpin that hold the groove together and the spark plug that fires the soloists up, Tootie Heath is a seasoned virtuoso on the drum set and gave a master class on polyrhythmic swing. More concerned with swinging the band than soloing, he plays just loud enough; a consummate accompanist who never overpowers the other instrumentalist, nor even competes with them like many contemporary drummers who approach his level of virtuosity. His consummate artistry brings to mind another great drummer, “Philly Joe” Jones, who powered the marvelous Miles Davis Septet featuring Trane and Cannonball Adderley. There were times during his most creative periods when the great John Coltrane had all Philadelphians in his quartet: pianist McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman or Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Rashid Ali on drums.
The dominant voice in this ensemble, the first among equals, is the little big man Percy Heath, a composer, bandleader and saxophonist extraordinaire whom romped through the tune like a juke joint blues shouter. His is a special gift that enables a man of small statute to produce one of the largest most opulent sounds ever heard on the tenor saxophone – an instrument who’s melodic and harmonic possibilities have been explored by an amazing array of gifted artists. Some of the greatest of these – John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Benny Golson, Odean Pope, Sonny Fortune, Gregory Herbert, et al - came from Philadelphia.
But whenever I began raving about any of these dudes in Philadelphia during the early Sixties, somebody would pull my coat and say “Hey man, you just wait until Jimmy Heath gets back out here on the street. He’s the cat!” Sometimes they would say that even when I was praising John the prophet, which sounded like heresy, because to my ears John Coltrane had no equal on the tenor sax. The soprano either, after I heard him on “My Favorite Things.” So I looked forward to hearing this legendary saxophonist who was “down” doing hard time behind a “doogie bust.” King heroin had caused the fall of another musical giant! When I finally heard him I immediately recognized what all the fuss was about.
Whenever I watch him play Jimmy Heath brings to mind Carlos “Potato” Valdez, the legendary Afro-Cuban conga virtuoso, a little man whose small hands pound out as rich a tone as those drums are capable of producing; yet he seems to barely strike the skins. It’s as if he has a musical Midas touch. I get that same feeling every time I hear the warm lush lyrical tone that effortlessly flows from the bell of Heath’s saxophone like hot lava with the power to heal the human spirit. On Ceora, a composition by the legendary Philadelphia trumpeter Lee Morgan, a great artist whose persistent heroin problem help bring about his untimely demise, Heath turns to the soprano sax and quickly proved he is the master of both horns. Trumpeter Duane Eubanks takes the first solo. He has a good clear strong tone but his solo was surprisingly restrained; devoid of flashes of ostentatious virtuosity.
Perhaps his offering struck me that way because he was in the house that Wynton built, and I have grown accustomed to hearing Wynton blow the roof off the place. Upon reflection however, Wynton has set the standard so high that it is unreasonable to expect any other trumpeter to equal it. It is quite possible to be an outstanding trumpeter and never rise to Wynton’s standard of performance. Jimmy played the soprano with a full round sound that is his trademark on the tenor, only even more lyrical. Pat Martino followed suit and presented a flawless solo; laid back but dynamic. Joey Defrancesco switched to acoustic piano and demonstrated how well he could play with two hands, creating complex colorful chords that complimented his inventive improvisations. His gentle fluid style, like ripples on a stream, reminded me of Ahmad Jamal, the great piano master from Pittsburg who is a contemporary of the Heath Brothers and every jazz pianist worthy of the name has studied.
I was especially moved by their rendition of Soulful Days, a song composed by my old friend Cal Massey, a trumpeter from Pittsburg who settled in Philly a while before moving on to the Big Apple. I once played congas in Cal’s band before he anointed the world with his music then joined the ancestors. The performance was largely rendered by a classic Philadelphia style organ trio, which included guitar and drums. Joey Defrancesco and Pat Martino reminded me of the collaborations between Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith, which is not surprising since Defrancesco idolizes Jimmy Smith and Martino played with him and several other major jazz organists. Defrancesco was burning on all cylinders, pumping the bass and playing tasty chords behind Martino’s solo; the audience erupted in spirited applause. When Defrancesco takes his turn the careful listener can easily hear many references to art of Jimmy Smith.
Among the other highlights of the evening was their rendition of Benny Golson’s composition “I Remember Clifford,” a moving musical eulogy to the late trumpet genius Clifford Brown, who died at an early age in a car accident. Eubanks is featured on this beautiful ballad and he played movingly. The band made a point of performing the works of other Philadelphia musicians, such as pianist Bobby Timmons’ classic Moaning, which was a big hit for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, in which he played piano and Naima, John Coltrane’s song for his wife that Doug Carn transformed into a panegyric to all black women with his brilliant lyrics, and his wife Jean Carn made immortal with her unforgettable performance.
We were also treated to a singer after intermission, a tall guy with a big pliable baritone voice Jimmy Heath called T.C. III, who had been highly influenced by the late originals Leone Thomas and Eddie Jefferson, who invented vocalese, especially on Miles Davis’ tune “Freddie Freeloader.” T.C. could croon, and scat, and even yodeled a little bit. Leon Lives! And so does the jazz sound of Philadelphia. Thus it was a smart and stylish move for Philadelphia Mayor John Street, a big time Jazz Fan, to declare the two days that the Philadelphia Musicians were jamming in New York, “Philly Jazz At Lincoln Center Day!”
* To see Jimmy Heath perform with his brothers Percy and Tootie click on this link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7CdTjHQ9rQ
March 22, 2006
By: playthell Benjamin
March 22, 2006
By: playthell Benjamin