It is clearly a labor of love. "My first love has always been the big band, our symphony orchestra," he writes. Seeing it as a follow up to his earlier big band recordings, Really Big from 1960, and Little Man Big Band from 1992, Heath continues his practice of paying homage to people he loves and respects. "Gemini" is for his daughter Roslyn, for example, "Big P" for his brother Percy, "Basic Birks" for Dizzy Gillespie, "Like A Son" for saxophonist Antonio Hart and "Heritage Hum" is for "my people." "‘No End' is very special to me," writes Heath, "since it was given to me by my friend, one of the great romantic composers of the bebop era, Kenny Dorham. Jimmy Dorsey who I admired, wrote ‘I'm Glad There is You' (which could apply to you who purchased this CD)." Paralleling the titles, the personnel reflects his love and respect for musicians he has worked with over the years, particularly members of the Dizzy Gillespie Allumni All Star Band, along with some of his own students: pianist Jeb Patton, and Hart, who has succeeded him as saxophone professor at Queen's College, CUNY. Overall, the music reflects his love and respect for the jazz tradition as a whole.
This is classic, big band jazz, in the manner of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis or the Gillespie Alumni band. Recently I reviewed Hank and Frank by two other NEA Jazz Masters, Hank Jones (1989) and Frank Wess (2007.) What I wrote there applies to Jimmy Heath. "When asked by a friend what it was like, my immediate response was ‘just what you'd expect.' This was not intended as derogatory in any way because what I expect from these artists is classic, sophisticated, smooth, (in the true sense-not smooth jazz!), swinging, straight down the middle jazz from consummate professionals. This is exactly what Hank and Frank deliver. No surprises, no disappointments." And this is what Jimmy Heath delivers. The issue is not innovation but tastefulness, loving craftsmanship, creativity within boundaries, and a passion for the music and its traditions. This is how freshness is brought to classical music, including classic jazz.
For the most part, Heath eschews exotica. At a recent concert I counted sixteen or seventeen instruments shared among Maria Schneider's reed section, for example. By contrast, apart from a few measures on flute, these saxophonists just play saxophones. Heath's arrangements follow the traditional pattern of pitting the sections against each other, leaving plenty of space for the soloists, allowing the rhythm section to support them for long stretches and adding background figures where appropriate. And the soloists respond. Trumpeters Stafford, Jones, Gisbert and Mossman, trombonists Davis, Hampton, Powell, Mosca and Jackson, and all of the reed players, as well as Patton, Washington and Nash, turn in top-flight performances. Guest Lew Tabackin's always expressive flute has four choruses on the waltz, "Gemini." And Heath's own solos are as refreshing as his writing. It is ironic that someone who hung out and practiced with John Coltrane should have retained his own voice, while hundreds of tenor players in New York who never knew Coltrane sound just like him!
Quality big bands are a rare item these days, and quality big band recordings even more so. This one is a total package. Heath's liner notes take us through each piece, there is an excellent interview with him at the NEA Jazz Masters web site (www.nea.gov/national/jazz/heath_ interview.html), and there is a video bio at: /www.iaje.org/bio.asp?ArtistID=67. Every good jazz collection needs some big band examples and this one should be among them.
I asked Jimmy if he thought sales would cover his expenses. "I hope so," he responded. "That's all we need. I just want to get the music out there."