The Heath Brothers, recorded live at Sweet Basil in New York and broadcast as part of the excellent, and very much missed NPR series Jazz Alive! which offered an essential education in Jazz from the 1970s through to the mid-1980s.
Time was, this sort of live broadcast from various venues around the country (and the world) was a regular staple in the American radio diet. They offered rare opportunities as well as a chance to listen to Jazz on a regular basis and make discoveries if you were new to the form and able to enhance your musical experience – and to the artist, a different perspective on things. Not so now. And at a time when musical variety has been proven to be a crucial ingredient in modern music, the lack of that broad musical experience leaves a lot of explorations missing.
People complain that modern Pop music is dead, or it has finally achieved that law of diminishing returns, where each genre is a variation on the genre just before it, and that musical references have pretty much stopped at around 1988. There are exceptions to that, primarily coming from places other than the mainstream. But mainstream music, that form which has usually been the distillation and full-flavored stew of musical forms before it, has hit a dead end. Why? Because of access. Sure, with streaming audio and iTunes and Spotify and all the music download services currently available, you would think the musical world would now be an embarrassment of riches. But only if you know where to look and know what you’re looking for and have the propensity to dig. We still need to be pointed in directions and we still need to keep an open mind. The only way contemporary music is going to survive is by looking at the contributions which came down decades, if not centuries, before us.
Now on to The Heath Brothers: Formed in 1975 in Philadelphia, by the brothers Jimmy (tenor saxophone), Percy (bass), and Albert “Tootie” Heath (drums), and Jimmy’s son Mtume (percussion); along with non-family members pianist Stanley Cowell. Tony Purrone (guitar). Tootie left in 1978, and was replaced by Akira Tana for a short period before returning in 1982. They also added other sidemen for some of their recording dates.
The group still exists with just two of the brothers, Jimmy and Tootie, and additional sidemen as needed. The DVD, Brotherly Jazz: The Heath Brothers, recorded in 2004, shortly before Percy Heath‘s death, was one of the last times the three brothers played together, and chronicled the Heath Brothers’ personal lives as well as socio-political issues many jazz musicians dealt with in the later 20th century, including jail, drugs, discrimination and segregation. The 2009 CD Endurance was the first without Percy, and features seven original numbers by Jimmy, including “From a Lonely Bass”, composed in memory of his late brother.
They have recorded some 9 albums, in addition to the 2009 release. Percy Heath was one of the founding members of The Modern Jazz Quartet, another musical dynasty. Tootie and Jimmy have extensive careers with other groups as well as solo works and collaborations.
All in all, a remarkable family with a profound and pivotal history.
Give a listen.