Master Class

Jimmy Heath Gets His Due

Heath's records never sold as well as those that covered his pieces, but they abide. The Riversides prevail as boldly gentle reminders of a creative period in jazz when the rules of bop were stretched to breaking, including Swamp Seed, with its stirring brass quartet, and the more conventional On the Trail, an apparent blowing session (with Kenny Burrell's guitar) that is nonetheless orderly, polished, and varied. Variety was never an issue: The Quota opens with two blues that are nothing alike—the title tune, another twice-played (and arranged) theme that leads to four Heath tenor choruses, with trumpet and French horn kicking in at the climax so that you can hardly believe it's just a sextet; and "Lowland Lullaby," which begins with a waltzing 24-bar intro based entirely on a yawning two-note riff that kicks into four for a melodic theme in which the riff signals rhythmic change-ups in each improvised chorus. No less impressive are the even less well-known albums from the early 1970s, a relatively uncreative period from which The Gap Sealer, Love and Understanding, The Time and the Place, and the rare quartet session Picture of Heath stand out as gently independent and fully realized projects. Significantly, in this period he wrote his Afro-American Suite of Evolution, each movement dedicated to jazz idols of the past, and thus way ahead of the curve for jazz repertory and reverence.

With the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's performances of "Gemini," "Like a Son," "Gingerbread Boy," "The Voice of the Saxophone," and Parker's "Yardbird Suite" ringing in my ears, I've focused on Heath's writing at the expense of his playing, and yet nothing was more evident than the degree to which Heath, usually limiting himself to two-chorus solos while cheerleading the younger players as well as a few peers (Slide Hampton, his brothers), outclassed everyone. Initially influenced by Parker (when he played alto he was known as Little Bird), and later by Dexter Gordon and still later by Coltrane, who played in Heath's legendarily unrecorded Philadelphia big band in the late 1940s, he has long since developed a natural, dry, aged-in-the-wood style and timbre of his own. Like his writing, his playing has a candid, sage authority that never calls undue attention to itself. Its meaning stems from feeling, not technique.

Compare his two recorded versions of "The Voice of the Saxophone," playing a borrowed alto (for the first time in 24 years) with a 1974 quintet (The Time and the Place), and tenor with the 1992 Little Man Big Band (sadly his only big band album, savory despite harsh engineering that favors the rhythm section to no one's advantage). On tenor, he is the soul of authority, brimming with confidence, vigor, and the dark, knowing sound of an old master—appropriate for a homage to Coleman Hawkins. On the alto, though, he recapitulates the poise of untrammeled bop, a yearning back-of-beat sound that Parker invented—it's almost as though the instrument brought him back to another era. He communicates two very discrete moods simply in the way he intones the melody. With Heath's 1972 recording of "Invitation" (The Gap Sealer), he proved himself one of the few saxophonists who could play the soprano in tune, focusing on melody notes rather than a shrill wail, more in the line of Zoot Sims than Coltrane. At the concert, the very containment of his solos on tenor and soprano made the more angular assertions of his former student Antonio Hart and members of the orchestra, including Wynton Marsalis, seem overwrought by comparison. They played well enough, but the only soloist who could match Heath's savoir faire was the band's veteran baritone saxophonist, Joe Temperley.

During the first half, Heath actually danced to his solos and others', reveling in a good time he was eager to share, playing Strayhorn's "Day Dream" at a provocatively fast tempo, raising the barometer with a Lestorian one-note ride on his marvelous "Indiana" variation, "Nice People." For the big band half, he chose mostly to conduct, and was just as buoyant, because his arrangements never stand still: Every solo at some point gets orchestral commentary, every section of the band fully deployed and on alert. For most of the past three decades, Heath has buttered his bread as an educator, heading the Jazz Masters program at Queens University (he stepped down in 1998). But he teaches every time he unfurls a score or plays a solo. He has quietly, without fanfare, become the soul of jazz, and if you don't pay attention, you will miss something.

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