A Night With the Heath Brothers: The Opening Act That Closed the Show
Picture this: The Heath Brothers in Philly on a crystal clear early spring evening at the premier, acoustically perfect venue of the Kimmel Center. Three of the jazz world’s living legends in one place at one time and in total command of the music. What more is there to say? Nothing. This article is done... see ya.
Oh you want to know more? Ok, it was a truly beautiful, soul-satisfying experience to step back in time in the company of Jimmie, “Tootie”, and Percy Heath on the night of March 23, 2003. These guys are bop personified. Who else can hold you spellbound in a sax solo that gently rolls from the horn with a feeling that never stops swinging? Who else can play “Yardbird Suite” by plucking the strings in a Freddie Green strummin’ sort of way on what looked like a cello? Who else can dispense with the drums and accompany the soloists on nothing more than a tambourine? Jimmie, Percy, and Albert “Tootie” Heath that’s who. These guys have been in the music for the better part of 60 years and it shows. The event was a piece of history – three giants in their ‘70’s sounding as fresh as they sounded as kids in the day when bebop was born.
It was billed as a tribute to Charlie Parker and was part of the Roy Haynes “Birds of a Feather” concert but the Heath Brothers gave us a little Bird, a little Monk, and a little of their own music as well. Jimmie started right in with a Heath Brothers original called “Cloak & Dagger”. He favors the lower register of the tenor and the mellowness of the sound mixed with the woody acoustics of Verizon Hall hugged you and set off a little neon sign in your mind blinking “now entering Jazz Heaven”. A flavor of Coleman Hawkins more than Prez; driving but never brash, just flowing lines in time with the bass, drums, and piano – a solo, yes but never “outside” the tune. Add in Percy’s quick walkin’ bass lines and Tootie’s floor tom rolls and cracking rim shots and this tune “rocked”.
With everyone warmed up, the next tune was a rendition of Parker’s “Confirmation”. I’ve heard this tune in the key of C and it’s pretty but the Heath Brothers seem to have started in another key and in a relaxed swing style. The pianist 28 year-old Jeb Patton – got to solo first and he rollicked through this tune at a nice pace. Jimmie said the piano man was a student of his from Queen College and added something along the lines that it was a “pressure (vs. a pleasure) to have him in his class”. He was that good – Count Basie would have loved the way he played.
Next Jimmie picked up the soprano sax and played Parker’s “Old Folks”. Lest you think the tune’s title suggested something about the Heath Brothers, let me tell you the way Jimmie played this tune put Kenny G to shame and would have brought the late, great Grover Washington, Jr. to tears. The soprano ain’t easy to play sweetly but the way Jimmie hit it – well, if you’ve ever heard Branford Marsalis play soprano on the opening tune to the "Russia House" then you know how it sounded. Sweet. (Now I know who Branford learned that sound from!)
The elder statesmen himself, Mr. Percy Heath next paid homage to Charlie Parker in a “down-home” way as he plucked out the “Yardbird Suite” – you could almost see Charlie in that one picture when he wore the bibbed overalls looking over Percy’s shoulder as he played the tune. The pianist did a fine job of walking the bass line and Tootie laid down a swing groove on the sizzle ride cymbal. It was another example of how jazz is always open to fresh interpretation in the hands of the masters. Marvelous.
One thing I noticed throughout the night is that Tootie Heath was chompin’ at the bit to solo – I’m a drummer so I know these things. Well, he got the chance on the next tune. The rolls were thunderous around those toms and accented by snare rolls – singles not press rolls – and splashes of crystalline cymbals. I didn’t catch the name of the tune but after that solo I was too blown away to think straight and just listened. Very Powerful.
The highlight of the evening was Monk’s “Around Midnight”, again with Jimmie on soprano – if it were anybody else and they sounded this pure and pretty – hitting those high notes in quick flourishes up the scale and then back into the melody in tempo – they would give up the tenor altogether and thank God they could play the soprano that well. This is what smooth jazz could have been if given the chance. Beautiful.