courtesy of Play MPE
Jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath died this past January 19 at the age of 93. That means that he lived through just about every genre of twentieth-century jazz. His personal involvement in making jazz can be traced back to performances with both Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie.
A little over a week ago Verve released his final album entitled Love Letter. There are only eight tracks, all of which are ballad classics, including songs written by Billie Holiday, Mal Waldron, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, and Gordon Parks (who is probably better known for his work in photography and film). Heath’s rhythm section includes Kenny Barron on piano, David Wong on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. For some tracks the combo is augmented by Russell Malone on guitar and/or Monte Croft on vibraphone.
The album also features three “special guests.” Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis joins Heath for a duo account of Dorham’s “La Mesha.” In addition two of the leading vocalists of the current century join the group. Both of them sing songs by Parks, “Left Alone” presented by Cécile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter delivering “Don’t Misunderstand.”
I first became aware of Heath’s achievements through the Blue Note CD reissue entitled Picture of Heath. The album was originally issued under the title Playboys, perhaps in a coy reference to the sextet with two leaders, Chet Baker on trumpet and Art Pepper on alto saxophone. Five of the seven tracks were Heath compositions (with the other two by Pepper). There is much more quietude in the rhetoric of Love Letter; and, when listening to “La Mesha” in its current context, one can only describe the paired rhetoric of Heath and Marsalis as one of poignant lyricism.
The weakest tracks on the album are the vocals. Salvant may have been trying to sound coy in “Left Alone.” However, her voice lacks body; and her pitch is often uncertain, having to rely on Heath’s much more secure intonation to get back on track. Porter brings a much more secure sense of pitch to his delivery, but his rhetorical stylizing tends to slip into past clichés that are better forgotten.
Still, the focus of listening deserves to be centered on Heath himself. The advance publicity material described him as “a jockey-framed, spirited, 93-year-old man, who with the full breadth of his intellectual powers, delivers his final, magnificent salvo.” That last noun is a bit over the top for a repertoire of lyrical ballads. For that matter, while there is no question that Heath approaches these eight tracks with keen sensitivity to the tunes themselves, there is nothing intellectual about the foundational rhetoric.