One of my favorite recordings from 2013 was the second album by the trio of veteran drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and relative young guns Ethan Iverson and Ben Street (on piano and bass, respectively). Tootie’s Tempo (Sunnyside) turned the spotlight on the percussionist, one of the last great proponents of bop playing; but he’s a musician capable of so much more. The trio’s first recording was a terrific but loose live session from the New York club Smalls; the second release captured the group melding into a working ensemble, essaying a wide variety of standards drawn from the entirety of jazz history, with Heath given the latitude to explicitly impart his personality in every performance. The results were accessible, effortlessly swinging, and fun—no matter how hoary the chestnut, the drummer brought something modern and hip it.
That quality continues on the trio’s even stronger new album, Philadelphia Beat (out Tuesday on, again on Sunnyside). The title refers to Heath’s hometown and its strong jazz tradition. The trio recorded the album in Philly, and in the middle of the visit played a local gig; Heath also met with some of his old cohorts at the city’s Clef Club, the first black musician’s union there. In his liner notes Iverson writes that the Clef Club hang charged the energy and vibe of the recording sessions. While the repertoire is still dominated by jazz classics, the trio branches out a bit: there’s a cover of the Gloria Gaynor disco classic “I Will Survive” as well as a surprising, rather spontaneous interpretation of Bach’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” Of course, the apple doesn’t fall far from the trio, as another selection is John Lewis’s “Concorde,” a fuguelike classic by the Modern Jazz Quartet which featured Albert’s brother Percy on bass (the former worked with the latter a bit when he replaced drummer Connie Kay in the group’s final year).
The playing of Iverson and Street is superb throughout, and once again the pianist gets to exert a wonderfully subversive feel on many of the tracks. There’s modern harmony and phrasing throughout the exquisitely slow reading of the Eubie Blake staple “Memories of You,” building tension and florid embellishment of melody against a fatback drumbeat on “I Will Survive” (a flashback to the early days of the pianist’s work in the Bad Plus), and a supremely light touch (a la Lewis) on the Milt Jackson standard “Bag’s Groove,” which Heath opens with finger cymbals, (“an invitation to dance,” in the words of Iverson).
Sometimes I forget about the quiet grace and eloquent swing of jazz—reasons I’ve loved it for so many years—so it’s great when a recording like this turns up and reminds me of that basic, indelible attraction. Philadelphia Beat is one of those rare new albums where everything just feels right, and you can’t help but say, “yes!” Below you can hear the trio’s take on the Monk gem “Bye-Ya,” whom Heath worked with in Philly.
Chris Corstens Quartet, Treiffel (Plattenbakkerij)
John Tilbury, For Tomasz Sikorski (Bôlt)
Jeff Albert’s Instigation Quartet, The Tree on the Mound (Rogue Art)
Sam Dees, The Show Must Go On (Atlantic/Real Gone Music)
Bly de Blyant, ABC (Hubro)