CD review: Jimmy Heath – Love Letter 2020: Videos, CD cover

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Precious few of us get to live until age 93, even fewer can look back at that point over 76-year career, and even fewer can see a lifelong dream realized just a month before passing.

The beloved saxophonist-composer Jimmy Heath certainly makes a grand exit with the final album of his career, the finishing touches to which were applied just a month before his death.  Known for his expertise in rendering ballads, Heath delivers an all-ballads recital on Love Letter. Appropriately for the jazz icon, these sessions involve a star-studded multi-generational cast including NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron, acclaimed guitarist Russell Malone, soulful vibraphone veteran Monte Croft, New York first-call bassist David Wong, and all-world drummer Lewis Nash. Augmenting the group on separate tracks are 21st-century vocal superstars Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant, and trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis.

These interpretations include Heath’s elegant arrangements of three seldom heard originals culled from his enormous body of work. He also distinctively interprets “Con Alma,” an essential jazz standard by Dizzy Gillespie, his mentor from the moment they met in 1946. “Con Alma” features sparkling solos from both Malone and Croft. Wynton Marsalis joins Heath and Kenny Barron for a tender dialogue on trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha.” Marsalis’ plays sweetly on the latter and Croft adds nice touches on vibes. Throughout Heath’s soulful, expressive solos carry a solid, dark lyrical tone that belies his age, perhaps best exemplified on this Dorham tune and the Arthur Herzog-Billie Holiday chestnut, “Don’t Explain.”

The sequencing of this album is quite good too.  A highlight is Cécile McLorin Salvant’s poignant reading of Billie Holiday’s lyric on the blue ballad “Left Alone,” composed by Mal Waldron, with nimble support from Croft and Malone. Another is Gregory Porter’s world-weary yet caressing of Gordon Parks’ underground classic “Don’t Misunderstand” (introduced by O.C. Smith in the blaxploitation classic Shaft’s Big Score).  Lewis Nash’s drumming throughout is a master class in subtle restraint.

“Jimmy always wanted to know the lyrics of a song before playing it,” says Carol Friedman, who co-produced Love Letter with Grammy-winning producer Brian Bacchus. “That particular sensitivity no doubt contributes to the intimacy of his sound and is the reason he loved playing ballads — whether a tune had lyrics or not, he was singing with that horn. This is the record Jimmy never got to make. Asking him if he wanted to do an all-ballads album was predicated on decades of us talking about singers and love songs…I was continually in awe of this 92-year-old man who was sitting at the computer, writing arrangements, and sending me things that I could put into MIDI and Garage Band so I could hear them,” Bacchus says. “It was humbling to see someone that age operate at that level. And in his playing, Jimmy — who people think of as a bebop-rooted player who could nimbly negotiate all the chord changes you could throw at him — was getting rid of all the extraneous notes and getting to the core of what needed to be said.”

Heath During the mid-fifties Heath served a four-and-a-half-year sentence for a narcotics conviction, during which time he led and wrote for the prison big band. When he returned to New York in 1964 he expanded his tonal palette, incorporating soprano saxophone and flute, electric keyboards, traditional African melodies and funk beats. During that interim, he also began studying orchestration, string and vocal writing, and extended-form composition. He furthered these interests through his activities with the Heath Brothers and at Queens College, where he wrote new material for his arrangement and composition students. In the process, Heath created a repertoire that he presented on several essential big band albums, beginning with Little Man Big Band for Verve in 1992.

Two of Heath’s three originals here were birthed as orchestral charts — “Fashion or Passion” comes from a 2004 Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra commission, while “Inside Your Heart” — Heath’s only soprano saxophone vehicle on the date —  is the second movement of The Endless Search, a suite Heath recorded in 2010 with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. It sounds as though Billy Strayhorn was the inspiration for “Ballad For Upper Neighbors Suite,” the third original, which he’d previously addressed on a 1995 recording.

Already for this writer, this album ranks with such stellar ballad fare as Coltrane’s Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Pharaoh Sanders’ tribute to Trane, Crescent with Love, and Red Garland’s The Quota, which featured Heath, The latter is not a complete album of ballads but worthy of mention because it dates back almost 50 years and Heath sounds every bit as vital on this outing as he did then – quite astonishing. Also, the comparisons to Trane are more related to that emotive feeling one can get when listening to a whole set of ballads. It’s not to suggest there is much similarity between the two styles of playing although Trane was very restrained and controlled on those mentioned.

We will not delve into Heath’s storied career (but you should) but Heath’s and Trane’s paths both intertwined and diverged. Of note, after high school Heath toured with a Midwest territory orchestra until 1946, before returning to Philadelphia, where, in 1947, he organized a 17-piece bebop band that included future stars John Coltrane and Benny Golson. Heath transitioned from alto to tenor after playing with Dizzy Gillespie during his stint with Miles Davis led combos in the early fifties and was a candidate to replace Trane in the late fifties but his parole restrictions from his narcotics conviction prevented him from traveling outside Philadelphia.

Talk about going out the right way. Without the background few would guess the main soloist on these tracks is a five-foot-three 93-year-old man keenly aware of his impending mortality and facing it stoically. “Jimmy was an emotional, romantic player,” Friedman sums up. “He got to make the record of his dreams. How lucky we are to have his last word.” This album is more than just a kind gesture. It’s gorgeous emotive music delivered by an icon that will remain a primary enduring work in his storied legacy.

1. Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite (4:16)
2. Left Alone (4:27)
3. Inside Your Heart (4:50)
4. La Mesha (7:12)
5. Don’t Misunderstand (5:32)
6. Con Alma (5:13)
7. Fashion Or Passion (5:37)
8. Don’t Explain (7:11)

Jimmy Heath - Love Letter (2020)

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