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Albert "Tootie" Heath: Class Personified

R.J. DeLuke By

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Jazz has moved on, hip-hop has moved on and pop has moved on. It goes on. I'm happy to be here, able to do what I do. —Albert "Tootie" Heath
Albert "Tootie" Heath is among the drummers who lived—and thrived—during what many call the golden age of jazz, the '40s, '50, early '60s. He's enjoyed the fruits of a varied and historic career, but never stayed put. Just kept working. He admires the musicians of today and the direction of jazz. The Philadelphia native extols hip-hop for its status in today's music world. On the way to age 80 at the end of May, he is still growing and learning.

The youngest of the famed Heather brothers [bassist Percy Heath is the oldest, followed by saxophonist/composer Jimmy Heath], and the drummer for the renowned Heath Brothers quartet, has an open mind and a big heart. Friendly and affable, it seems he would be hard-pressed to say a bad word about anyone. It's the way he was raised, in Philadelphia in a close family. He also lived in Europe for about a dozen years, as an artist in a living, breathing art form where people's attitudes toward such were different; more respectful.

Heath is a positive person; forthright, jovial and intelligent. He has confidence, but no destructive ego. And, like his brothers, he doesn't lack for stories and has a sparkling knack for telling them. He watched Charles Mingus box someone's ears in a nightclub, and saw Thelonious Monk's artistry and antics at the iconic Five Spot, among so many other experiences.

Listening to his new CD, Philadelphia Beat, and the resourceful intricacy he brings to each of the 12 tunes with bandmates Ethan Iverson and Ben Street, one is hard-pressed to think this drum master is still learning. But his open attitude, musical curiosity and ability to see a bigger picture won't allow him any other recourse. The next time he plays, he'll be in the moment, reacting to what's there and trying to give it a twist that was unforeseen. That's the way he still does it. It stems from the world in which he grew up as a young man and young musician in the fertile Philadelphia scene, with the cream of New York's crop.

"I had the opportunity to play with some of the greatest people," says Heath of the period decades ago. "During that time, those people were not really considered great. They were just good players. John Coltrane was not the Coltrane he was when he died. Sonny Rollins developed into the icon that he is. Ornette Coleman was around. I never got a chance to play with Ornette, but I played with Don Cherry. I wanted to play with Ornette but I never got the opportunity."

He chuckles before adding, "But he's still around, so maybe it will happen."

Today, he's still playing with vital musicians. Philadelphia Beat is the third recording with Iverson and Street. It was recorded in Philly and consists of a variety of styles and songs from disparate eras. Monk's ""Bye Ya," Milt Jackson's "Bags Groove," Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," the pop song "I Will Survive" and even a Bach tune, "Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns DieStimme." Heath's drumming is full of dexterity and taste. His ears are open. He both reacts and directs. He swings and uses an array of devices some of which would confound younger players, if not at least bring appreciative smiles to their faces. Sometimes he can be so old school, he's new again.

"It brings out a whole other aspect of my growing. Ethan and Ben are guys that have taken me on a little different journey," says Heath from his Santa Fe, New Mexico home where he moved last fall from Los Angeles. "It's getting to be more and more exciting. I'm allowed to explore and do different things. At almost 80 years old, I've got an opportunity to dig deep in myself. Even play a few of my own compositions and things that I don't get chance to do. Since Percy died, Jimmy has become the musical director of the Heath Brothers. He plays his own music. I don't blame him... It's fun. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying I get the chance to do a lot of things Ethan and Ben Street that I don't do with my brother."

The drummer doesn't pick all the music for the recordings. Some stuff is discussed among the group. Suggestions might be made and Heath will have the final say. Then they go to work on them. They don't over work them. The band is tight, and because of that, they feel free to be themselves and to reach for things—something Heath has always admired in musicians.

"The three of us have found each other musically. We are exploring things that we haven't done before," he says. "Ben has a reputation as a guy that's the avant-garde groups' choice. He's kind of known for that. And Ethan is known for the music of the The Bad Plus. When we get together, we don't play any of that. We don't play any Bad Plus. We don't play any Heath Brothers. We don't play any of the Andrew Cyrille music that Ben plays. We do our own stuff and it's really fresh."

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