WBGO Radar

Albert "Tootie" Heath: Philadelphia Beat

drummer tootie heath

Albert “Tootie” Heath’s Philadelphia is a state of mind. It’s the jewel box of jazz, full of riches.

It starts with a simple invitation – Tootie’s finger cymbals, rim shots, or brushwork. Ben Street’s bass lays the rail, and Ethan Iverson’s piano drives it home.

You follow them down the tracks into an emerald forest of possibilities. Trust me. Once there, there’s be no place you’d rather be.

Recorded over a weekend in the drummer’s hometown of Philly, it’s the trio’s third outing on disc and builds on the success of Tootie’s Tempo, one of the best CDs of 2013.

Tootie’s Philadelphia is a space of exquisite tastes, where his interests and abilities range free. “Bag’s Groove” honors vibraphonist Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet, in which Tootie played for a time with pianist John Lewis and his brother Percy on bass.

Lewis’s “Concorde” is a chops-busting jazz fugue, down to the full stretto section at the end. “Reets ‘N I” showcases Tootie’s virtuosic command of bebop, and on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” he takes a tambourine where no tambourine has gone before.

Tootie first played Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya” with the master himself in the house band at Philly’s Showboat club, and Cal Massey’s “Bakai,” which he first played in 1957 on John Coltrane’s first album, finds new life here with Nigerian talking drum rhythms.

The album’s two ballads are testament to the trio’s shared gifts for understatement – Eubie Blake’s 1930 hit “Memories Of You,” and Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change,” made famous by Quincy Jones on the 1974 album Body Heat.  No one overplays – ever.

But wait – there’s more – J.S. Bach’s “Wachet Auf” started out as a bass warmup for Street, which Tootie insisted they play for the session, and Iverson unearthed the perfect lines of melody in “Pentatonic Etude” from a book of studies by saxophonist Yusef Lateef.

There's the disco classic "I Will Survive," reimagined. And Kurt Weill's "Speak Low" restored to its original harmonies by Ben Street. Tootie adds an element of surprise - a Poinciana beat borrowed, he says, from old friend Vernell Fournier.

Each of these three musicians draws from an extraordinarily deep bag. That’s why they found each other, and why they sound so good together.

But what does all of this this urbanity and eloquence have to do with Philadelphia?

Step back back to that invitation.

Jazz curator Hyland Harris, in his insightful liner notes, suggests how Tootie’s experiences in the city of brotherly love shaped him as an artist, and the company he keeps.

“Jazz was a big deal in these working class black communities and these communities nourished and continually produced talent.  We should also think about the names we will never hear about: the bakers, laborers, construction workers, house cleaners doctors and lawyers who were the fabric of that community.  For me, that’s what “Philly Beat” is all about."

In sum, Philadelphia Beat is a kind of distilled essence of jazz. It’s a big deal. It can change your life.  Listen up.

Thank you, Tootie, Ethan and Ben.

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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