LIVE: The Heath Brothers @ Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center, 6/28/11

David Wong and Jimmy Heath
David Wong and Jimmy Heath

“That was a song entitled ‘Sleeves,’” jazz icon Jimmy Heath informed the full house inside the Ladd Theatre. Then he added, “Based on ‘Autumn Leaves’, so I can have my royal-tees… if you please!” We were still laughing as Heath went on. “That was my one rap for the evening. That’s enough’a that!”

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone of any age who has a better time onstage than the 85-year old sax player and his “baby brother” Albert “Tootie” Heath, who’s just another jazz drummer in his 70’s who can still bring the noise when the moment calls for it. When the two brothers weren’t smiling and bopping to whatever tune was playing, they were sharing a smile that said, “Damn, this is fun!” That sense of fun is a major part of the breezy straight-ahead sound the brothers and their younger cohorts made.

“Autumn Leaves” was followed by Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes”, an easy mid-tempo piece that dove-tailed nicely with the bossa treatment given to their opening number. After establishing the melody, Heath tossed the spotlight to pianist Jeb Patton, who was an infant when the Heath Brothers became a band unto themselves in 1975. The term “phenom” has been a millstone for many young artists, but Patton’s been wearing it since he graduated from Duke, and he’s showing no signs of going down. There’s a fantastic lightness to Patton’s touch, as well as an ability to take pieces to a higher level of excitement. His muscular trio arrangement of Jo Stafford’s “Long Ago and Far Away” was a real eye-opener. Jimmy watched in the dark from the back of the stage, occasionally looking over his shoulder at the rain that lashed the trees outside the Zankel Center.

Jimmy Heath is not a blower or a flag-waver. He eschews the gymnastics many modern players favor, preferring to keep his tone rich and consistent. It’s like watching a junkball pitcher who seems to have nothing until you realize he’s throwing a no-hitter. His soprano sax was superb on Billy Strayhorn’s waltzing “Daydream,” and his tenor was as butter-smooth on “Autumn” as it was on Blue Mitchell’s “Fungii Mama,” an encore that received the second standing ovation of the night; the first one came after their regular-set closer “Gingerbread Boy,” which was filled with life and laughter, and Jimmy was still dancing. Patton visibly inspires Jimmy, and vice versa.

Tootie had come onstage wearing a straw boater, and had spent most of “Autumn” keeping time on tambourine. By the time “Long Ago” started, the boater was nowhere to be seen, and Tootie was serving up crisp, stinging drum fills that added snap to Patton’s piano. He can also back it off and paint beautiful pictures with brushes, as he did during the classic blues “Round Midnight,” although Tootie switched things up at the end with a samba beat, adding a little topspin to one of Thelonious Monk’s most famous tunes.

Tootie’s partner in foundation was bassist David Wong, yet another Skidmore Jazz alum that’s made it to the big time. His job’s actually pretty tough, because the spirit of the late bassist Percy Heath is still strong with this group: A chair on the left side of the stage was left empty for Percy, and the night’s most effecting moment happened when Wong bowed a beautiful solo on an untitled tune that Jimmy dedicated to his late brother, who played with the Modern Jazz Quartet for over 40 years. Although the rest of Wong’s solos were unremarkable, his support work allowed Tootie and Patton to stick and move at will without having to worry about who was keeping time.

Skidmore’s concert series got a lot younger after this one: Powerhouse bassist Linda Oh came in Saturday night, and trumpet monster Ambrose Akinmusire takes the spotlight tonight (Tuesday, July 5). This is better for Skidmore Jazz students than it is for the rest of us, because they need to see successful contemporaries. But for one night, the kids got to see what they should look like if they’re lucky enough to be playing in their 80’s. Jimmy and Tootie Heath can still do it, and they’re still having a blast while they’re doing it. And that’s all you can ask from life.

Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Autumn Leaves
Soul Eyes
Long Ago & Far Away
(Untitled/Percy Heath tribute)
A Sound for Sore Ears
Round Midnight
Gingerbread Boy
Fungii Mama

The Heath Brothers Quartet
The Heath Brothers Quartet

1 Comment
  1. steve ward says

    What a great night of music! Timeless and ageless

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