Richard Sears Sextet ft. Tootie Heath

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 – ALTADENA –

commissioned by the Los Angeles Jazz Society in 2013

to be released on Ropeadope Records. September 9, 2016

Kirk Knuffke – cornet
Steven Lugerner – alto saxophone and bass clarinet
Patrick Wolff – tenor saxophone
Garret Lang – bass
Richard Sears – piano/composition
Albert “Tootie” Heath – drums

Recorded at Fantasy Studios (Berkeley, CA) June 11-12, 2015

Produced by Richard Sears

Engineered and Mixed by Jesse Nichols

 – now booking shows for fall 2016 –

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ALTADENA presents drummer Tootie Heath – the legendary hard-bop sideman – in his most assertive and dynamic performance on record to date. Commissioned in 2013 by the Los Angeles Jazz Society, this music was composed by rising star jazz pianist Richard Sears.

Richard and Tootie met in Los Angeles, and started working together in 2012. As Richard recalls, “at home, Tootie would play Ornette Coleman recordings, sing back every note, and recall stories about people like Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Yusef Lateef. Tootie was deeply involved with forward-thinking composers and improvisors during the 60’s and 70’s. Though some of this history is chronicled, this part of his playing is not fully recognized.”

Taking it’s name from the Southern California foothills where Tootie spent most of the last 40 years, “Altadena” is a five part suite that features Tootie in a dynamic and often free-form musical context, where his playing blurs between soloist and accompanist throughout.

Brooklyn-based pianist Richard Sears is a rising force on the jazz scene who has distinguished himself as a fierce improviser and ambitious composer. His previous album “Skyline” (2015) came out on Fresh Sound Records, and the critically hailed trio session affirmed his status as a player of prodigious promise. Over the past decade Sears has performed with some of the most important figures in jazz, including Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Joshua Redman, and Chick Corea.

Albert “Tootie” Heath made his recording debut on John Coltrane’s first album as a leader, “Coltrane”, released on Prestige in 1957. Growing up in Philadelphia during a historically vibrant time, Tootie came of age playing with the likes of Bobby Timmons, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, as well as his older brothers Jimmy and Percy. Tootie lived in New York and Denmark through the the 60’s, and continued to make history working with Thelonious Monk, Nina Simon, Wes Montgomery, Dexter Gordon, and many others.

In 1969, prior to moving to Los Angeles, Tootie recorded his debut album as a leader, Kawaida, which features the poetry of his nephew, James Mtume, as well as performances by Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry, and Ed Blackwell. His most recent recording, “Philadelphia Beat” (Sunnyside) includes Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus, and Ben Street. Currently, Tootie lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is 81 years old.

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– Liner Notes –

Befitting his sixty years as a professional jazz drummer, Albert “Tootie” Heath holds strong core aesthetic principles. He expressed some of them to me in July 2013, while participating in one of the most profane, amusing DownBeat Blindfold Tests ever conducted.

A key dictum is that drummers should never lose sight of their instrument’s functional role. “You’re playing for people,” Heath said at one point. “Drums have a rhythm. Where’s the feeling? Where’s the beat?”

He emphasized, too, that compositions should communicate, not obfuscate. “Don’t allow a theme to go so quickly that you can’t sing it,” he said. “Then what good is it? It’s a song. You need repeats in your music, to allow people to follow you.”

Heath also advocated collective imperatives. “You should try to capture a group sound,” he said. “It’s not about the drums and the bass accompanying a horn. It’s about all of them having the same presence.”

Three months after those remarks, Heath played the debut performance of the well-wrought suite, documented two years later—two weeks after his eightieth birthday—on this CD. Composed by California-born pianist Richard Sears, then 26, for a hand-picked sextet, it’s a sort of “Concerto for Tootie,” intended, Sears says, to illuminate Heath’s abilities as “an interpreter of new music.” That Sears so felicitously embodies Heath’s m.o. of embracing functionality and imagination, of interweaving the Tradition and the Freedom Principle, may stem in part from his periodic social calls to Heath’s house in Altadena, California, on the northern outskirts of Los Angeles County.

“We’d have lunch, listen to music, and I’d ask him about all the people he played with,” says Sears. Raised in Los Gatos, California, he matriculated at USC in 2005, and moved to Brooklyn last year. “Tootie’s stories are incredible, and I would ache from laughter after every hang.”

In point of fact, Sears writes music that is—to quote the title of British writer Valerie Wilmer’s first-hand account of the protagonists of the 1960s New York avant-garde—as serious as your life.

“As a teen, avant-garde jazz was my punk rock,” Sears says. “I heard this transcendent cacophony—catharsis, passion, uninhibited self-expression, angst, anger and joy at the same time—in the music of McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.”

Sears conceived each of Altadena’s five parts from a particular groove or texture he’d heard Heath play. The ebullient first section, a swinging refraction of the first part of the melody of Faure’s Piano Nocturne No. 4 in Eb-Major, showcases Heath’s driving, resilient swing feel; the second has a rubato, quasi-African texture, with long, open chords under which Heath improvises. The Old and New Dreams-like freebop refraction on the third track acknowledges Heath’s close association with Ornette Coleman collaborators Don Cherry, Edward Blackwell, and Billy Higgins, while part four, a gorgeous ballad with Ducal hints that features solos by Steven Lugener on bass clarinet and Kirk Knuffke on cornet, offers Heath space to sound-paint the drumkit with characteristic sensitivity. Sears thought that the polyrhythms embedded in the melody of the track five, propelled by bassist Garrett Long’s mighty vamp and animated by outer partials solos by tenor saxophonist Patrick Wolff and Knuffke, might pull Heath “a bit outside his comfort zone,” but the master rises—as expected—to the occasion.

Sears, who is nothing if not self-critical, is satisfied with the LP-length 35-minute performance (“a sort of golden ratio of the listening attention span”) that mirrors its ’60s antecedents. “I owed it to Tootie to make this happen,” he says. “It was a gift to him in the first place.”

 

Ted Panken
2016 recipient of
Lifetime Acheivement in Jazz Journalisim
Jazz Journalists Assosciation

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