It’s never too late for a great jazz musician to step into the spotlight. In recent years, drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath has finally gained the recognition commensurate with the esteem he’s long inspired among his peers.
The recent reissue of his second album as a leader, "Kwanza" (Xanadu) , helps fill out the creative profile of a musician who’s still going strong at 80.
Recorded in the spring of 1973, "Kwanza" captures a mid-career master with a long-established reputation as one of the most eloquent and adaptable drummers in jazz. Ever since making his recording debut on tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s first solo record in 1957, he’d provided supple and unfailingly tasteful support for a series of classic albums by now legendary artists like guitarist Wes Montgomery, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
He wasn’t forgotten during a four-year stint in Sweden, but when Heath moved back to the U.S. in 1969 he found fewer opportunities to record. With the chance to make "Kwanza," a rare project of his own, Heath wasn’t content to organize an all-star jam session. He’d been collaborating and studying composition with multi-instrumental explorer Yusef Lateef, and he used "Kwanza" to investigate some of the chamber music concepts he’d been working on, like “A Notion,” a serene soundscape with a folk-like melody rendered beautifully on flute by Jimmy Heath.
The Philadelphia-raised Heaths -- 88-year-old saxophonist/composer and NEA jazz master Jimmy and the late Percy, bassist for the Modern Jazz Quartet -- make up one of the most illustrious clans in jazz. "Kwanza" marks the first time the three siblings recorded together, anticipating their prolific output as the Heath Brothers.
Tootie seems determined to make the album a family affair. He dedicates his urgent and jagged “Dr. JEH” to Jimmy, who plays some lithesome soprano sax, and includes "Oops!," a joyous blues piece by Percy that is the first tune by the bassist ever recorded. The Heaths sound like they’re having a ball, with Tootie’s soft-shoe brushwork dancing behind, beside and around his brothers’ flute and bass.
Joining the brothers are trombonist Curtis Fuller, guitarist Ted Dunbar and pianist Kenny Barron. Everyone gets a chance to stretch out on the album’s longest track, a 10-minute sinuous slow blues “Sub-Set” that features some particularly meaty tenor by Jimmy.
The only thing that marks the album as dated is when Barron trades his piano for an electric piano, an instrument with a bright timbre that doesn’t always fit the proceedings (the CD adds a solo Barron piece, “Wazuri Blues,” recorded some eight years after "Kwanza" that’s timeless).
One reason why Heath flew under the jazz press radar for so long is that he’s been based in Los Angeles since 1974, quietly contributing one potent performance after another. That started to change a few years ago when much younger musicians made a point of seeking him out.
Bassist Ben Street and Ethan Iverson, pianist for The Bad Plus, have recorded two excellent albums showcasing Heath, "Tootie’s Tempo" and "Philadelphia Beat" (both on Sunnyside). And L.A. pianist Richard Sears recently recorded a brilliant suite he composed for Heath, designed to let the drummer work in rhythmic territory far beyond the hard bop grooves for which he’s known.
"Kwanza" is finally resurfacing as part of a reissue series bringing to light albums released on the indie label Xanadu, which documented some of L.A.’s overlooked masters in the 1970s (Kevin Whitehead recently reviewed the late L.A. flutist Sam Most’s Xanadu reissue "From the Attic of My Mind ").
The work of a well-traveled veteran still eager to explore new ideas, "Kwanza" offers a fresh look at Heath as percussion maestro and as a composer.