The Heath Brothers – Jazz Family

The Heath Brothers
Jazz Family

The appropriately titled Jazz Family , is the second Concord Jazz recording for the Heath Brothers. Contemplating the family legacy, middle brother Jimmy, 71, the one who writes, arranges and plays saxophones, remarks “we’re lucky enough that all of us are still here. Between us, we’ve got over 150 years of experience and we are the elders of the surviving families of this music.” Brother Percy, 75, a bassist of considerable renown, is the senior brother. Albert “Tootie,” the LA based drummer, is the baby of the group at 63. “Some baby,” his middle brother wryly observes.

Although Jimmy and Percy gigged together in and around their Philadelphia home in the 40s, most notably with Dizzy Gillespie, it wasn’t until Jimmy’s Riverside recordings in the late 50s that the three brothers had a chance to really play together. “By that time,” Jimmy recalls, “Percy was out all the time with the Modern Jazz Quartet and Tootie was working with J.J. Johnson and Bobby Timmons.”

There have been several incarnations of the Heath Brothers as a group, but there was a fourteen year layover between recordings until last year’s As We Were Saying, their Concord Jazz debut. Since Percy left the MJQ, Jimmy reports that “we’ve been working some but Percy is retired so we pick and choose the gigs we want.”

Jimmy also works with his own group and big band, maintaining a very consistent composing and arranging agenda as well. After more than a decade of teaching, Jimmy retired this year from Queens College, where a chair was named in his honor at the Aaron Copland School of Music. When he’s not playing with his elder brothers, Tootie leads his own group. Percy spends most of his days fishing and painting (his work appeared in the CD booklet of the last release, and this recording showcases a painting entitled “Percy’s Vision #2”).

Two of the tracks on this recording utilize a brass choir, arranged by Jimmy. “I did some things with this instrumentation for Sonny Rollins, on the recording, ‘Old Flames,’ and I really like the way it came out. Plus throughout my career, I’ve been using French horns, and tubas, like on ‘Swamp Seed,’ and ‘New Picture,’ so that’s why I decided to use the brass choir here. It adds a richness, a sustained beautiful quality to the music without adding a string section. If you have 12-15 strings, you can get a beautiful sound but usually most jazz recordings only use 3~ and get a very thin sound which doesn’t give you the warm cushion.”

Jazz Family includes four compositions by Jimmy: “Thirteenth House,” which was originally recorded by McCoy Tyner, “Wind Print” which he describes as being “like a finger print, the music makes a brief and fleeting print in the air,” “A Harmonic Future,” part of a suite he wrote for the Lincoln Center Jazz Program, that featured Joe Henderson, and ‘Ybree At Last.” Jimmy credits journalist Willard Jenkins with that title, from an article about the group that appeared earlier this year in JazzTimes magazine.

The other original on this recording is Percy’s “Move to the Groove,” which Jimmy describes “a blues with a lithe bebop sequence thrown in.”

Jimmy reports that he’s ‘writing all the time. If I get the germ of an idea, I develop until I get something I’m satisfied with, at least momentarily but it can be changed later. It’s a daily thing with me and I spend a 10t of time at the piano and on my saxophone, as well the computer.”

The oldest of the three Brothers, Percy’s association with the Modem Jazz Quartet has been the dominant activity in his distinguished career. Long prized as the ideal accompanist with a wane, appealing tone, Percy is an superb soloist as well, as evidenced by his feature on “I’m Lost,” which utilizes his “baby bass.” Originally a violinist, Percy switched to bass in 1946, soon performing locally on the vibrant Philly scene. He moved to New York in 1947, to join trumpeter Howard McGhee’s band alongside Jimmy. Over the next four years, he played with a Who’s Who of Bebop, including Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Miles, J.J. Johnson and Fats Navarro.

In 1951 he joined vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s Quartet, which became the Modern Jazz Quartet the following year. One of the most popular groups in Jazz, the MJQ toured and recorded steadily over the next 23 years. After they temporarily disbanded, Percy joined Jimmy and Tootie in the Heath Brothers, an arrangement that lasted from 1975 – 1982. When the MJQ regrouped, Percy was back on board. After drummer Connie Kay’s death in 1995, the MJQ wound down, with Tootie filling in on drums for their final engagements. Albert Tootie Heath has long been a respected hard-loop based drummer known for an open mind towards more commercial styles of jazz. After moving to New York from Philadelphia in 1957 he made his debut on John Coltrane’s first solo recording, “Coltrane.” He then joined trombonist J.J. Johnson’s group for three years, and the Jazztet, Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s ensemble, for two. At the time, Tootie was also the house drummer for Riverside Records, playing on many recordings for the label. During the period, he also worked with the trios of pianists Cedar Walton arid Bobby Timmons.

In the mid-60s, Tootie moved to Europe, frequently playing with such other expatriates as Kenny Drew and Dexter Gordon. When he returned home, he joined Herbie Hancock’s pre-fusion sextet, and also spent five years with saxophonist Yusef Lateef Settling in LA in the late 70s, ho has been freelancing ever since, and now, has been reunited, musically, with his fellow siblings.

Middle brother Jimmy, one of Philly’s most prolific musical sons, didn’t even pick up the saxophone until he was in high school. Best known for his distinctive tenor sound, and his fluid playing on both soprano sax and flute, he has long been a respected composer having written 125 compositions, several of which have become part of the jazz repertory.

Back in Philly, where he started on alto, Jimmy led a big band that included John Coltrane (then also an alto saxophonist), and the group was adopted by Howard McGhee. He played alongside Trane again in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band from 1949-1950. Dubbed “Little Bird” because of the similarity in his playing to Charlie Parker, Heath itched to tenor m the early ’50s, finding gigs more plentiful for the larger horn. During the 50s, he formed a group with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and also played with Miles. His Riverside recordings, done between 1959 and 1964 arc prized for their fresh writing and astute solo work. Since then, he has remained active as a saxophonist ant writer. His interest in big bands led him to a full professorship at Queens College where he found an outlet for his original charts. Today, he divides his time between the Heath Brothers, his own Quartet and occasional big band gigs, in addition to Master Classes.

And so the Heath Brothers keep marching on.