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Kwanza (The First)
Picture of Heath
KWANZA (Swahili for “first”), an album released on the Xanadu label in 1973, was a first for three reasons.
It was Albert “Tootie” Heath’s first album as leader, his first as composer and for the first time on record the three musical Heath brothers had played together as a trio — drummer Tootie, reedman Jimmy and bassist Percy, combining for Percy’s tune Oops!
Tootie was born in Philadelphia in 1935, the younger brother of Percy (born 1923) and Jimmy (born 1926).
Their father was a car mechanic who played clarinet in a marching band. Every Friday he would collect his instrument from the pawnshop, put in some practice, play with the band and return it to the same pawnshop on Monday.
His dedication certainly affected the three boys. As for Albert, he was also inspired by the pioneer bop-drumming pioneer genius Max Roach. “Max seemed revolutionary in his music,” he said. “always ahead of everybody else.”
His first record was with John Coltrane in 1957 and he played in trios with pianists Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton.
He lived in Europe in the late ’60s, accompanying visiting US hornmen and, after returning Stateside, played with Yusef Lateef and Herbie Hancock.
Kwanza puts the Heaths with three other masters, Detroit-born trombonist Curtis Fuller, another Philly boy pianist Kenny Barron and guitarist Ted Dunbar.
It is Percy’s delving bass — already a fixture in the Modern Jazz Quartet since 1952 — that begins the opener, Tootie’s Tafadhali.
Jimmy plays flute and Dunbar’s sharp guitar patterns skitter across the theme. Jimmy returns on strident tenor over Tootie’s effervescent drum sound.
Dr JEH (James Edward Heath) is a brotherly tribute. Jimmy’s soprano saxophone dances over Barron’s electric notes and Tootie’s leaping drums and Fuller’s slides join in the salute.
Dunia is another Swahili title, meaning “earthy” and named for Tootie’s wife. His drums are featured throughout. Not so in Percy’s Oops! where the bassist has his long, springing moment and Jimmy’s flute adds its airy beauty.
Tootie’s Sub-Set is an all-members blowing album finale with a succession of robust solos, and Jimmy’s gutsy tenor chorus is particularly strong, but this reissue has another surprise, and it’s an extra track — a superb blues solo by Barron, Warzuri Blues, now away from the electric keyboard and back to a very basic sound. Beautiful!
Two years after Kwanza came Jimmy’s Xanadu album in September 1975, Picture of Heath.
Jimmy had been an altoist at the outset of his career, playing with Howard McGhee (1947-8) and in Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band (1949-50), when he was labelled Little Bird in constant comparison to Charlie Parker. Switching to tenor, he worked with Miles Davis, Gil Evans and Milt Jackson and then made a series of fine albums for the Riverside label.
On A Picture of Heath he plays tenor and soprano saxophone in a quartet formation with Detroiter Barry Harris on piano, bassist Sam Jones from Jacksonville, Florida, and drummer Billy Higgins, late of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, from Los Angeles.
They open with Jimmy’s opus For Minors Only and his tenor blows out the theme with bravado and zest, while Harris takes his cue for a romping solo.
Body and Soul is the tenor saxophonist’s legendary test piece, but Jimmy starts it on soprano, Harris has a reflective, finely honed chorus before Jimmy returns on tenor, powerful and allusive — you can catch Nancy with the Laughing Face in his meanderings, until he reaches his final coda.
The fast-moving title number becomes a praise-song too to the ever-inventive Jones and Higgins. Bruh Slim has a Latin edge and Jimmy swings into it furiously, while All Members is exactly that with all four of the foursome having their solo moments and Jones in particular showing his plunging mettle.
The closer is CTA, short for Central Trucking Agency, which was close to the offices of Blue Note Records.
Jimmy wrote and named the tune in 1953, when it was first recorded by Miles Davis for the label.
It becomes very much a Heath-piece here, with his rampaging tenor in full locomotion and telling the story of his own, and his father’s and his brothers’ lifetimes in music.
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