A Love Letter  From and To Jimmy Heath Is a Fitting Finale

While you wait for that soon to be released Coltrane Ballads reissue, do yourself a favor and pick up tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s worthy final recording. The younger brother of MJQ bassist Percy Heath passed away at age 93 January 19th, 2020 at home in Loganville, Ga.

Heath was as well-known as a composer and arranger as he was as a performer. He began as an alto saxophonist, emulating Charlie Parker but soon switched to tenor to get out from under Bird’s plumage.

Early on, he fronted a 16 piece band that included Benny Golson and a very young John Coltrane. Like many jazz musicians of his time, he fell prey to heroin. While in jail he composed and arranged music that his brother Albert (A/K/A “Tootie”) smuggled out. Chet Baker and Art Pepper (no strangers themselves to the syringe) recorded in 1956 an album of mostly Heath composed and arranged tunes called Playboys, that in 1961 Pacific Jazz reissued as Pictures of Heath (PJ-18).

Though some later Pure Pleasure reissues lack the outstanding sonic quality of the earlier ones that claimed to be “mastered from tape”, the label’s reissue of this record cut at Capitol by Ron McMaster, is no doubt sourced from the original tape and features outstanding mono recorded sound. It’s in stock at Elusive Disc and is highly recommended.

Sorry to veer off course, but I figured a little background might be useful. One more factoid: the terms of Heath’s probation forced him to decline Miles Davis’s offer to replace John Coltrane after his exit following the recording of Kind of Blue.

Now on to this absolutely delightful record (that’s not a word I often use but it so fits here). You’ll have to read in jazz historian/critic Gary Giddins’ annotation the story of how this album came about. Giddens points out in his notes that while ballads were an essential part of Heath’s repertoire, he’d never recorded an album of them “on the order of (Ben) Webster’s The Warm Moods” or the aforementioned Coltrane classic Ballads. The mission set, Heath’s good friend photographer Carol Friedman took up the cause. As unlikely as it might sound, Verve signed the then 92 year old Heath to a three record deal.

The album was recorded in two sessions, one at Sear Sound in New York two days before Heath’s 93rd birthday (a venue that surely excites many AnalogPlanet readers and gives you an indication of the superb sound quality here) and the other a month later at 800 East Studios in Atlanta, after Heath and his wife had moved to Loganville.

The album opens with David Wong’s elegant arco bass introduction to the Heath written and arranged “Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite”. The ensemble then enters. When Heath enters on tenor so sure and clean are his lines you’d never figure you’re listening to a 5’ 3” nonagenarian.

You’ll immediately fall in love with this album and be so glad you attended the vinyl concert, which features Kenny Barron on piano, Lewis Nash on drums, Monte Croft on vibraphone and Russell Malone on guitar. There are memerable vocal turns by Cécile McLoran Salvant on Billie Holiday’s and Mal Waldron’s “Left Alone” (which Holiday never recorded) and Gregory Porter on Gordon Parks’ sly “Don’t Misunderstand”. Wynton Marsalis plays on Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha”.

But make no mistake: these aren’t celebs doing support work for an old man in need. Jimmy Heath is in full control. His ideas and execution remain exquisite throughout. We are lucky to have this document. And none too soon. He was gone two months following the second recording date.

The sonics are as good as the music. Analog-digital, I really don’t care as much about the storage medium as I do about the final result. I played the files for weeks before the record arrived and whatever Ryan K. Smith did with the digital files, he’s mastered a great sounding record from a wonderfully produced and recorded pair of sessions. Nicely gate-fold packaged too. You'll play this one repeatedly and have trouble removing it from your turntable.Play on Jimmy Heath!

Music Direct Buy It Now

Montpier's picture

Sorry, took a class in Jazz History Giddins taught at Penn many, many years ago. His last name is quite often misspelled. Great music writer and biographer.

He's moderating an online panel discussion on Saturday as part of NYC 92Y Charlie Parker 100th Birthday celebration:

Featuring Jazz Sax Masters Joe Lovano, Charles McPherson, Grace Kelly and Antonio Hart, and Barry Harris. Hosted by Gary Giddins
Saturday, August 29, 2 ET, $10


Michael Fremer's picture
He pointed it out to me. Of course I know how to spell his name. Was a "brain fade". He moderated a panel discussion in which I participated at The Graduate Center CUNY in 2014:

Michael Fremer, editor of analogplanet.com
Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records
Nathan Salsburg, curator at the Alan Lomax Archive
Sam Stephenson, author of numerous books, including The Jazz Loft Project
Moderated by Gary Giddins, director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center.

Montpier's picture

Petrusich's book is wonderful as is The Jazz Loft book and video (great scenes with Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton preparing for 1959 Town Hall concert).

Do you recall topic and whether on CUNY online?

Thanks much for Heath review, need to check it out.

Got 'Pictures of Heath' but cheating by sticking it in a Jazz Wax reissue w/original 'Playboys' cover -- which of course is hidden under the mattress...

mariojzz's picture

He was a great musician and writer.He is also the brother to Albert "tootie: Heathj.

Michael Fremer's picture
Read the review?
MhtLion's picture

Pre-ordered. Thanks for the introduction of this gem.

LondonCalling's picture

that the recent RSD releases included Kawaida on Reel Records, credited to Kuumba Toudie Heath featuring Jimmmy Heath as well as his son Mtume. This is definitely not an album of ballads but worth checking out if spiritual jazz is your thing. Also features Herbie Hancock and Don Cherry.

Montpier's picture

Presumably you're from the UK as that title was not listed on US RSD site or any US independents. Just ordered from UK-based seller via Discogs. Thanks!

gjetson's picture

Great review, Michael. The music is superb and the sound is excellent. It would be even better if my copy weren't pressed about 1/8" off-center. No indication of who pressed it in the runout, but aaaaaargh!

LondonCalling's picture

Yes, I'm in the UK. I realised after I posted that this was a UK release and may not appear on US RSD lists. We seem to get most US RSD releases often in very limited quantities and often eye watering prices! Anyway I hope you enjoy Kawaida when it arrives.