Destination: THEN! + Destination: NOW!

O’Be Records : 1969

Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums; Don Cherry, trumpet; Jimmy Heath, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ed Blackwell, percussion; Mtume, congas.

Ethan Iverson : Ben Street : Albert “Tootie” Heath
Live at Smalls
Smalls Live : 2010

EI, piano; BS, bass; ATH, drums.

We are once again overjoyed to present a guest post from Ethan Iverson, this time on the occasion of (1) the release of his live trio album with Tootie Heath and Ben Street, and (2) this week’s Village Vanguard hit by the Heath brothers. It is a journey through time and space and sound, and marks what we are fairly certain is the first time a Tadd Dameron tune has graced D:O! Please enjoy the tunes and the talk — take it away, Ethan…

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The economic reality for independent artists living in New York gets more appalling every day. Yet it remains the best place in the world to live if you want to be around a great concentration of older jazz musicians. I always tell younger players, “Go see the masters live as much as you can, and then, if you’re ready, start hiring them as soon as you can.”

But not all of the masters live in New York. Drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the youngest brother of a fecund Philadelphia jazz family that also produced saxophonist Jimmy and bassist Percy, transplanted happily to California in the early 1970’s. Whenever he shows up, it’s an event, just like with Charles McPherson or Bunky Green or Evan Parker or the Fringe or anybody else not normally residing in NYC.

Tootie will be at the Village Vanguard this coming week with Jimmy and the rest of the Heath Brothers group. It’s the perfect room for the Tootie Heath experience. The last time I saw him there he was not only swinging his ass off but also outfitted in sunglasses, bespoke suit and natty bow tie. I told him, “Man, you look good!” He turned and checked it out in the bar mirror. “I sure do!” he replied.

Tootie’s first record date was in 1957 with Nina Simone. (I’ll give you a second to digest that.) Since then, he’s been on all sorts of gigs and sessions with many of the greatest names in the music. While most of his recorded output is in a swinging, straight-ahead style, he’s always been interested in other music, too, ranging from Herbie Hancock’s funky grooves on Fat Albert Rotunda to Roscoe Mitchell’s experimental quartet with Jodie Christian and Malachi Favors.

His debut record as a leader included early examples of one of Destination: OUT’s favorite genres, kosmigroov.  Kawaida is the 1969 meeting of the Hancock rhythm section (with Buster Williams), his family (Jimmy Heath and Jimmy’s son Mtume), and the Ornette Coleman quartet (represented by Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell).

Kawaida is a good place to start if you want to hear how wonderfully Tootie plays graceful funk, but overall the record defers to his nephew, the future Miles Davis percussionist and successful bandleader. For Kawaida, Mtume brought in most of the compositions. He also belonged to the US Organization and studied the teachings of Maulana Karenga, so everyone present (except Blackwell) takes a Swahilli name, apparently given by Mtume:

Kuaamba Tootie Heath
Mwandishi Herbie Hancock
Tayari Jimmy Heath
Mchezaji Buster Williams
Msafari Don Cherry
Fundi Billy Bonner  (Bonner plays flute/perc, on “Kawaida” only)

Hancock continued this concept in his next band: he called the band Mwandishi and each member of the sextet got a Swahili name, too.

As far as I know, none of these musicians kept the Swahili name in regular use after the mid-’70s. (“Jabali” has stayed around for Billy Hart a bit, but that’s because it’s such a great-sounding name.) But I think all these men like hearing that name again once in a while. It’s certainly interesting and important to remember how affected they were by the era.

For me, Kawaida is more of a period piece than an essential listen. However, Don Cherry sounds so good on it that I will definitely keep it in occasional rotation. Whenever he appears, every phrase of Don Cherry is a burst of surreal sunlight. It’s fabulous to hear him instantly reframe this material into something less obvious, a quality especially evident on “Baraka.” (This references the poet Amiri Baraka, who wrote the liner notes and takes Imamu for a Swahili name.)

Cherry proudly leads the charge on the fanfare “Dunia,” which may be the only extant track of Jimmy Heath playing in a completely free-form context. This is Tootie’s own tune (and the only one on Kawaida not by Mtume). “Dunia” is heard again on Tootie’s next album, Kwaanza from 1974, but this time it sounds more like hard bop.

Of all the interviews I’ve done for my personal blog, Do The Math, the conversation with Tootie Heath is one of my favorites. Click over to the interview if you want to read more about Kawaida, Ornette Coleman, and stories of the jazz life.

For better or worse, that kind of jazz life is mostly gone at this point. When Tootie began his career in Philadelphia, the music was an everyday affair. There were enough small clubs everywhere that if you knew the common-practice repertoire, you could work. Maybe the audience paid attention, maybe they didn’t, but either way, the musicians could try to get better every night.

Today it’s not really like that in Philly or anyplace else, although at least Philly has Ortlieb’s. New York City has the most (albeit upscale) versions of venues where the “serious tradition of jazz as casual club music” can happen. My favorite is Smalls, an intimate basement that feels like the real deal. A spring 2009 Smalls gig with Tootie and Ben Street was the best “everyday affair” jazz I’d yet been a part of, so I immediately planned a fall recording. I’m indebted to pianist and Smalls proprietor Spike Wilner for his support of this project: He gave us three full nights to mess around and not try too hard.

Ben suggested some Billy Strayhorn music, a composer whom I love but hardly ever play. There was no rehearsal for this gig, but via email Ben and I agreed that The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn (Strayhorn’s only record as a leader) would supply the harmonic basis for our versions of “Chelsea Bridge” and “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.”

However, the way I first learned about “Flower” was not through a Duke Ellington or Strayhorn record, but from the Steve Lacy/Mal Waldron album Sempre Amore. (I recently blogged extensively about Mal Waldron, including how he’s a major influence on this record.) After listening to Strayhorn’s own romantic version with violins, I wondered about discarding a steady tempo. Ben agreed to try, so I asked Tootie right before the gig:

“Oh, do you mind playing ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’ rubato?”

“I’d love it. That’s how Frank Morgan played it, too.” (So much for having a new idea!)

Tootie used mallets on it and on the last night he even took a long solo up front. That take ended up being the one for the record. (At least I’m pretty sure this is the only version of this tune with a rhythmic tom solo in the beginning.)

“A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is the most abstract piece on a disc that otherwise documents how Ben and I interface with Tootie’s powerful swing.

My favorite track may be “Good Bait.” (A tune, incidentally, that was on that first Simone – Heath session in 1957!) After the piano intro, Tootie chooses to play mallets again on the A sections of the tune. No cymbals: Just the click on “2” and the double bounce on “4.”  Consequently, the bridge has an extra lift when he goes to the cymbal.

I regard my own performance on this disc as a work in progress. Ben is there already, displaying an unparalleled combination of modernism and old-school swing. But I’m especially proud of documenting the continued excellence of Tootie Heath. No matter what he plays, it is the sound of a life lived in jazz.

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The Heath Brothers are at the Vanguard through May 2. The Iverson-Street-Heath trio is available now. EI has most recently been on the road with Alex Ross on the Rest Is Noise tour, but is probably back in NYC now. You might even seen him at the Vanguard this weekend?

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