Commissioned by Los Angeles Jazz Society, 2013. Recorded with assistance from the Aaron Copland Recording Fund, released in 2016 on Ropeadope Records.
Richard Sears – piano, composition
Kirk Knuffke – cornet, Patrick Wolff – tenor saxophone,
Steven Lugener – bass clarinet, alto saxophone, Garret Lang – bass
Albert Heath – drums
Liner Notes, Ted Panken, 2016
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.”