Monday, August 27, 2012
The drummer, given some: Albert "Tootie" Heath with Ethan Iverson at the Vanguard
What do we mean when we say "Give the drummer some"? The trio of Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Albert "Tootie" Heath—which I heard at the Village Vanguard last night—is one answer. The band grows out of Iverson's "Seek out your heroes and play with them" initiative, also the engine behind the pianist's ongoing Billy Hart collaboration. The idea isn't simply that you give the drummer a lot of solo space; it's more that you simply play really great jazz in the company of the musician in question, while drawing the listeners' attention, both verbally and through sympathetic arrangements, to their brilliance.
I knew Tootie's name before attending last night's show, but I didn't know his work and his sound the way I know, say, Roy Haynes's. I may have even seen him play one other time—as part of the Heath Brothers, I believe, at a Jazz Foundation of America event—but he wasn't really on my radar in the way he ought to have been. And this is sort of the point re: the aforementioned "Seek out your heroes" initiative: The gig—in this case, a run at the Vanguard‚is no longer just a gig; it's a work of advocacy. What it says, is, "This masterful musician walks among us; he's playing better than ever; come pay your respects."(One of Iverson's many Heath intros last night went like this: "As we live and breathe, 'Tootie' Heath on drums!")
I heard such wonders coming from the drum kit last night that I felt embarrassed by my prior ignorance of Mr. Heath's work, by the fact that I'd never deliberately set aside a night, or ten, to go hear him play. There was the wicked bouncing march he laid down on "The Charleston," a quasi-backbeat—I think I remember a 16th-note feel, played with the left hand on the hi-hat—that reminded me of the Purdie Shuffle (see around 3:30 here) on Sonny Rollins's "No Moe" and some of the most exquisitely swinging brushwork I've ever heard on the head of "Shiny Stockings." (The way Heath's wire brushes grabbed the snare and lifted out the sound on the latter piece made me feel like I understood for the first time what was really meant by the term "trap set.")
But it was the mallet playing that really floored me. In his recap of Tuesday night's sets, Iverson mentioned Heath's "African mallet patterns" on Paul Motian's "It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago." I wouldn't have been knowledgeable enough to identify the beat in question—played with one mallet on the untightened snare, the other on the rack tom—as African, but that description makes perfect sense; relistening to the pattern in my head now, I'm pretty sure there was some three-against-four going on. Technicalities aside, though, the important thing about the beat was how it fit into the arrangement. Much of the rest of the set had to do with swinging in the conventional sense, pieces in which Iverson and Street reveled in Heath's spacious, gracious pocket, in which the trio grooved as one entity. But "It Should've Happened…" was something different. The performance was about coexistence rather than straightforward agreement. Iverson's melody floated over Heath's mallet pattern, the two seeming totally independent of one another but totally attuned. It's the kind of arrangement that, it seems to me, has to just sort of happen. It's like, "I'll play this, you play that, and I'll see you at the end of the tune." The parts jelled beautifully, even though their actual relationship was a mystery. And thus, as a Motian tribute, it made perfect sense. If that mallet episode played to me like a little mind puzzle, the one on "How Insensitive" was an exercise in simplicity. I'm not sure I've ever seen a drummer make more poetic use of minimal materials than Heath did on this piece. He held the mallet in his right hand, using it to lightly strike the floor tom while he rustled the fingers of his left hand over the head of the same drum. There were variations in the pattern, but mostly it was just pure pulse, with ever-so-slight embellishment. You heard the piano and the bass, but what you felt was the drum, a plush murmur in time. If I had to guess, I'd say that the piece lasted two minutes, maybe two and a half (all the pieces were brief, which made for excellent variety), but it felt so generous in its lulling hush. As with the brushwork, what I really felt here was a new understanding of the materials of jazz drumming: why you use brushes here, sticks there, mallets in this other context. The kit can speak in so many different tongues, and Albert Heath is fluent in them all.
Heath's witty banter was a show unto itself. The bowtied drummer was obviously in high spirits last night—though I'd venture to say that he probably is every night he's onstage—cracking constant jokes in between and even during the pieces. He'd turn constantly to the young man seated immediately to his left and offer commentary on the music as it was happening. One of my favorite of these moments was when Iverson was playing an eerie uncaccompanied intro to the ballad "Memories of You"; Heath leaned toward the audience member in question and stage-whispered "Frankenstein!" Then he pantomimed a scary monster, curling his hands into claws and baring his teeth. He was obviously poking fun at Iverson's love of the esoteric flourish, but in a loving, old-school way, the way one seasoned comedian might roast another. And after Iverson announced "Shiny Stockings," Heath turned to the young man and asked, "You know 'Thong Song'?" He explained that "Shiny Stockings" was pretty much analogous to that Sisqo favorite, before singing a little snippet of the immortal chorus ("Thong-th-thong-thong-thong") for the benefit of the entire crowd. Then, after Iverson spoke about Heath's association with Mal Waldron—the trio had either just played or was about to play Waldron's "Fire Waltz," the killer opener to the classic Dolphy/Little/Waldron/Davis/Blackwell Five Spot recordings, with Heath unleashing a merciless series of triplets on the snare—and recommended the Waldron record Impressions as a good example of that partnership, Heath said, "I think that record went rust instead of gold… or maybe it went mold."
As if it wasn't clear whose show it really was, Iverson and Street both sported "Tootie" buttons, with Street even wearing a Heath-style bowtie. This dynamic, i.e., generations mixing onstage, with the younger element (namely Iverson) making it very plain how thrilled they are to be onstage with the elder, has the potential to be corny or cloying. But the reason it's not in this case is that however worshipful Iverson's intros of Heath are, once the music begins, he's performing as an equal. Often, you'll see younger sidemen to distinguished older musicians playing a sort of "Yes man" role. Here, it's almost the opposite; Iverson's job in this trio seems to be to keep Heath surprised and energized. You can tell it's working because Heath plays in a constant state of delight, smiling and letting out appreciative whoops. Sure the style and the repertoire—familiar standards like "Now's the Time" and "All the Things You Are" alongside eccentric choices like the aforementioned "Fire Waltz" and the Motian—are designed to flatter, but in the end, the point is not simply to cater to the drummer but to stimulate him and thus to give the listener a sense of his breadth, to cultivate in the audience the kind of appreciation for this great man that Iverson himself harbors. And in all those senses, this project is entirely successful.
When you see this ingenerational link done right—i.e., when there's mutual respect, but also a real head-on engagement between equals—it's one of most inspiring, satisfying phenomena in jazz. I think about Jon Irabagon and Barry Altschul, or Darius Jones and Cooper-Moore, or Anthony Braxton and any one of his current much-younger collaborators. The Iverson/Heath hook-up (and I mean no disrespect to Ben Street; his role is vital—not to mention clearly impressive to Heath, who listened to the bassist's solos with rapt attention last night—and my discussion here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complex dynamic of this particular trio) is one of the most successful examples of this that I've seen, a partnership that makes "old" jazz feel entirely new. I'm not sure I can remember enjoying a set of so-called straight-ahead jazz more than this one, and it's because the setting encouraged me to focus on the nuts and bolts, to not take for granted the decades' worth of class and experience and good humor and skill seated behind the drums. In short, the set made me a Tootie fan for life. Mission accomplished.
*If anyone can think of other great intergenerational collaborations, either current (like the ones mentioned above) or past (Miles Davis and Tony Williams, say), I'd love to hear about ’em in the comments.
*It's interesting to think about how the Iverson/Heath partnership differs from the Iverson/Hart one. Hart is just five years older than Heath (the men were born in 1940 and 1935, respectively), but that gap is important. The current Billy Hart Quartet is playing a much more, for lack of a better word, modern strain of jazz than this Iverson/Street/Heath group, focused on long, exploratory performances and mostly original repertoire. The bands sound nothing alike, and they complement each other beautifully.
*Here is Steve Smith's sharp appreciation of the Iverson/Street/Heath trio, which he caught this past Thursday. I'd like to thank Steve for the tip, which spurred me to attend last night.
*As is customary with the Iverson collaborations, there's an extended interview on file.
UPDATE: Thanks, Mark Stryker, for his informative intergenerational-collabo overview, which you'll find in the comments. I know a few of those examples well (Shorter, Haynes, etc., and the Cookers absolutely rule!), but some are new to me. Psyched to look into the Louis Hayes group in particular.