Master Class

Jimmy Heath Gets His Due

The October 19 and 20 Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to Jimmy Heath, commemorating his 75th birthday, was called "He Walked With Giants"—a title typical of that series, and also of its unduly modest guest, whose superlative Riverside LPs were once anthologized as Fast Company and who himself titled a later album Peer Pleasure. Still, the implication that Heath is great by association riles me. I don't want to overstate his claims—merely allow them to stand on their own. Miles Davis and John Coltrane, born the same year as Heath, are giants in a way that he is not, though they both benefited from his skills as bandleader, composer, and player. Heath's achievement is of a different kind. He is primarily a craftsman, one of the most distinctive of his generation. If he remains undervalued even in his autumnal years, when he is routinely accorded living-legend status, it is because craftsmanship has limited charisma, especially when married to understatement, his stock in trade.

In Heath's case, craft is inseparable from melody, which, like comedy, is a favor of the angels—harder to play than drama or rhythm. If you've got the gift, you'd be a fool to sacrifice it. Yet Hollywood is littered with the corpses of comedians who coveted the tragedian's prestige, and jazz saw a generation of lyrical players bite the bullet of rhythms on top of rhythms combined with expressionist howls. Davis and Coltrane, once supreme melodists, could make the journey outward, fired by the force of genius and innovation. When Heath acknowledged the antimelodic fashions of the '70s—overblowing, extra percussion, Afrocentrism, vocalisms—he applied them as painterly touch-ups to an already centered approach steeped in his unique bebop melodicism.

Why unique? It became clear during the big band half of the Lincoln Center concert that Heath, a product of bop, was a child of the swing era whose love of big band bravura gives his tunes a peculiarly robust shine. Except for Heath Brothers albums, where he has usually worked with brothers Percy and Albert on bass and drums and a guitarist or pianist, he rarely records in the typical saxophone-plus-rhythm format, preferring to add at least a couple of brass instruments—French horn and tuba as well as trumpet and trombone. That instrumentation suggests an ear for subtle hues and dynamics, but disguises the unfeigned generosity of his melodies, which give off an orchestral charge no matter how small the ensemble. The tunes themselves make small groups, his and others that have covered them, sound larger. Despite his affection for minor chords, Heath's writing has an extrovert openness and rhythmic finesse that recalls orchestrations from the swing era, when the best and smartest music in the land courted inclusiveness.

I'm not certain precisely what makes some pieces, say Charlie Parker's "Ornithology," which was developed from a lick Bird played on a big band record, sound like combo music, and others, say Bud Powell's "Bouncing With Bud," which was written for a quintet, convey the valorous attack of an orchestra. Part of it has to do with the fact that some heads sound like extensions of what a musician might improvise in a solo, while others bespeak the interactive detail of composition. Of the great jazz tunesmiths whose work was often performed in the 1950s—Monk, Silver, Lewis, Mulligan, Weston, Mingus, and Heath among them—none has a more consistent feeling for orchestral attack than Heath, which is especially remarkable if you consider that most of his best known pieces are blues. Though elemental in structure, they are enlivened by substitute chords, rhythmic vamps, rests, and imaginative voicings, not to mention Heath's alert and knowing melodic command.

A good example is "Big P," introduced on Really Big, his second of six Riverside discs (one a year between 1959 and 1964, all presently in print), featuring seven winds plus rhythm. The piece is basically a 12-bar blues, but the head is 24 bars, the second 12 a variation on the first with slightly altered chords and a different voicing. The tune, which begins with minor chords and erupts into major ones, is a stately band riff with almost as many rests as notes, at first divided between reeds and brasses, which unite for the climax of each chorus like Ellington in full flower. Cannonball Adderley adapted "Big P," which suited his own inclination for ensemble might, but the Heath piece that ignited his sextet was the blues waltz "Gemini," with its six-note mock-classical call to arms and a written transitional passage that excitingly spells the soloists. Adderley uses bass for the call and flute for the head, while Heath's sextet versions assign both parts to French horn (Triple Threat, 1962) or cello (Love and Understanding, 1973), underscoring a broader and warmer palette. In all cases, the ensemble mines the give-and-take tradition of orchestral section work.

These pieces not only cast every member of the group in an essential role; they also stimulate improvisation—Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Kelly, and Cedar Walton, among others, recorded some of their best work of the period on Heath's watch. During a four-year sabbatical from playing in the 1950s, he wrote many durable tunes, including four for the 1956 Chet Baker and Art Pepper sextet LP, Playboys. The difference between the way that band plays them and an earlier Heath anthem, "C.T.A.," and two cooler numbers by Pepper, which are decidedly of their time, is startling. In 1953, with Heath on tenor, "C.T.A." had given Miles Davis's band a notable thrust, and in 1966, "Gingerbread Boy"—perhaps his signature piece, with a funky vamp that seems to presage Tony Williams and a memorable blues line—sparked unison playing by Davis and Wayne Shorter on Miles Smiles, famous for its otherwise discursive heads.

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