Jimmy Heath Stuns with 90th Birthday Celebration at New York’s Blue Note


Jimmy Heath leads a 17-piece big band at the Blue Note in New York in honor of his 90th birthday

(Photo: Jack Vartoogian/@FrontRowPhotos)

When saxophone legend Jimmy Heath appeared at the Blue Note in New York City on March 9 in celebration of his 90th birthday, it was hard to say which was better: his wonderful performance with a 17-piece big band on stage or his equally compelling warmup behind the scenes.

The man is a walking encyclopedia of jazz history (well documented in his excellent 2010 autobiography, I Walked With Giants), and his memory is still tack-sharp. So those gathered backstage got to hear tales of how Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster used to quiz a young Heath on the lyrics to various jazz standards, of playing alongside John Coltrane in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band (“After the gig, all the chicks would walk right past me and Trane and go right for Paul Gonzalves, because he was so damn handsome!”) and of sharing the stage with the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. This was just an appetizer before the banquet of music Heath laid out with his dynamic big band.

An ebullient presence on stage, Heath is an animated conductor who likes to move around, clap along and shout encouragements to his soloists. On this night he led his young charges on material from his last two big band outings—2013’s Togetherness, which was recorded live at the Blue Note, and 2006’s Turn Up The Heath.

The punchy set-opener, “Togetherness,” was highlighted by some show-stopping high-note trumpet pyrotechnics from Freddie Hendrix (Heath’s Cat Anderson in this aggregation) along with stellar solos from alto saxophonist Mark Gross, tenor saxophonist Bobby LaVell, trombonist James Burton and pianist Michael Weiss.

The band’s fiery 22-year-old drummer, Evan Sherman, fueled this swinging chart with his crisp, insistent beat and fierce attack on the kit. As the elder statesman said of Sherman to the audience, “I’m honored to have this young man join the old man to make something original.”

Heath’s compositions and arrangements are original indeed. And while this one-time professor of music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College has an obvious flair for counterpoint and harmony, the essence of his music is the swing factor, which ties him indelibly to all those jazz giants he spoke so fondly of before the set.

On his composition “Sleeves,” his clever contrafact on the standard “Autumn Leaves,” Heath played his tenor sax with remarkable fluidity and a robust tone, nonchalantly dropping in a quote from “Fascinating Rhythm” in the middle of his solo. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert also offered a blistering solo on this inventive number.

Heath’s “Sassy Samba,” dedicated to Sarah Vaughan, had tenor saxophonist LaVell deep in a Getzian mode and also featured Argentine trumpeter Diego Urcola, a former student of Heath’s at Queens College, on a beautiful Latin-tinged solo. The intricate, boppish burner “Sources Say,” Heath’s jab at the way the press often reports rumors without naming names, featured outstanding solos by trumpeter Hendrix and baritone sax ace Gary Smulyan.

Heath was again featured on tenor for a lush reading of the Jimmy Dorsey ballad “I’m Glad There Is You,” which was easily the emotional highpoint of the set. Following Heath’s elegant, lyrical solo leading into a virtuosic cadenza, there was a collective sigh in the room from audience and band members alike—all seeming to sense that they were witnessing something profoundly rare.

Heath’s hip jazz waltz “Gemini,” written decades ago for his daughter, showcased tenor saxophonist Mike Lee digging deep in bold, hard-boppish mode and also featured a brilliant flute solo by LaVell that had him playfully quoting from “All Blues.” And they closed the set in dramatic fashion with the Latin-flavored Gillespie tribute number “Without You, No Me,” which featured crackling solos from Gisbert and the bandleader himself.

Following that explosive closer, Heath was back upstairs to reminisce again, right up until it was time to start the second set.

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