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The Heath Brothers: As We Were Saying...

Robert Spencer By

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Oh man. Does this swing from the get-go, or what? And such a deal. Not only do you get the three Heath brothers: Jimmy on tenor and alto, Percy on bass and cello, and Al ("Tootie") drums, but they’re joined by the one and only Slide Hampton on ‘bone, Stanley Cowell on piano and kalimba, Sir Roland Hanna on piano, Jon Faddis on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Mark Elf on guitar. Plus James Mtume, Jimmy’s son, on percussion.

Need I say more? Just look at the CV’s on these guys. The brothers have played with a hall of fame’s worth of masters: Dizzy, Monk, Miles, Trane, the MJQ, on and on and on. Let’s not slight Herbie Hancock, Yusef Lateef, J. J. Johnson, and even, by way of Mtume, electric-funk Miles. This thing charges out of the gate with the delightful "The Newest One," featuring brief but potent solos from Faddis and Hampton, followed by Sir Roland on piano and Jimmy on tenor sounding like they invented jazz and own all the patents.

Next time the kids come by with their Counting Crows and Smashing Pumpkins discs, show them what real music sounds like with "Bop Agin," the second track. Yep, everybody plays excellently. Mark Elf wraps things up with a guitar solo and bar-swap with Jimmy that’s sunny but a trifle pro-forma; Elf isn’t a legend, but at this point, who’s counting?

"For Seven’s Sake" is a Coltrane-ish, spiritual number (not to say these guys are derivative. Coltrane probably got the idea from them), more introverted and serious than the first two, with some affecting work by Cowell on kalimba. "South Filthy" is a tribute to the Heath brothers’ lovely home town, featuring the brothers in a jaunty mood joined only by Mtume’s triangle. Jimmy’s horn here is hypnotically assured. It’s really something to hear his complete command of his instrument, a command unmatched by altogether too many younger players. The listener can tell here what it means to perfect a craft over fifty years. Check out his work solo on Jimmy Dorsey’s "I’m Glad There Is You." To borrow a phrase, it’s like watching Michelangelo sculpt.

The other two brothers hold up their end. Percy shines on Fats Navarro’s "Nostalgia" and "Dave’s Haze," another bright number featuring Elf turning in a fine blues line — backed up by the solid rock of Percy and Al. The final track is called "This Is What It Is," and no better title could be found for the whole album. Inquirers into jazz should be directly referred to this CD: this is what it is. These three and their sidemen played a large part in making it what it is, and here is a little sampler of what they do with the experience they’ve amassed and the mastery they’ve achieved.

The album is actually called As We Were Saying..., which I take to be a reference to the fact that the brothers haven’t played together since 1983 (They were interrupted by the MJQ and scads of other activity). I’m sorry for the interruptions, but it seems clear that what the brothers have gained in all their years of separate activity is the beautiful ease and control that enriches this disc.


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