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.


Mark Stryker said...

The intergenerational mix is everywhere in jazz, and has been for a long time. To take nothing away from the Iverson/Street/Heath – I heard them on the NPR broadcast and thought they sounded really good – I hear “old jazz” that sounds new all the time. Try Louis Hayes, who is of Heath’s generation at 75 and whose working band is comprised of musicians who could be his children and grandchildren, among them Abraham Burton and Dezron Douglas. (Speaking of Hayes, pianist David Hazeltine, now in his early 50s, uses Hayes frequently in his trio.) Then there’s Roy Hayes at 87 – same dynamic in his band. Wayne Shorter is 79 – but the average age of his longtime trio is 46 – and that’s a band of equals if there ever was one. Going back a few years, Kenny Washington was 21 when he started working with Johnny Griffin, who was in his 50s, and helped push Griff to the best work of his career. When Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan started their great group around 1980, they hired a young rhythm section including pianist Gary Dial and chose not to play bebop tunes but Dial’s modern/modal tunes.

What about younger musicians hiring older musicians ala Iverson and Heath? Trumpeter David Weiss’ current roaring band “The Cookers” is based on the idea of creating a context to draw attention to the greatness of underappreciated elders. It’s two guys in their 40s (Weiss/Craig Handy) with Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson, Cecil McBee, George Cables. Geri Allen sought out Ron Carter/Tony Williams to record and tour, and Geri has always worked frequently with her mentor Marcus Belgrave. My friend pianist Michael Weiss always hired veterans to pay his respects – Ben Riley, Pepper Adams, Slide Hampton, Junior Cook, Frank Wess. Joe Lovano’s first record as a leader had Mel Lewis on drums, and he sought out Gunther Schuller for recordings.). Joe Farrell made a great straight-ahead record in the late ‘70s at the height of the fusion era called “Skate Board Park” (Xanadu), with Larance Marable on drums (Chick plays piano on that by the way). Eric Alexander sought out Harold Mabern for gigs and recordings. Charles McPerson’s long performing relationship with Barry Harris goes back to his years as a student of Harris’ in Detroit in the ‘50s. My point: the dynamic that Ethan/Street/Heath encapsulated last week is part of the lifeblood of the music, even if it’s hidden in plain sight.

Coda: Speaking of treasured elder statesmen, you might find this relevant: A profile of Marcus Belgrave from last yesterday’s Detroit Free Press:|topnews|text|Entertainment

Mark Stryker said...

(Part 1) Woke up today thinking more about this topic. One of the key ideas that you point out in your thoughtful piece is that the point of Iverson hiring Heath isn’t merely to cater to the drummer but stimulate him, giving listeners a sense of appreciation for the depth and breadth of his conception. One interesting historic parallel I didn’t mention previously is the way that the Great Jazz Trio came together.

It was apparently Tony Williams’ idea to get Hank Jones together with himself and Ron Carter. I’ve never seen Williams interviewed about his motivation, but it’s often assumed that in 1975, at the height of fusion, he simply wanted to play some straight-ahead jazz, or maybe prove to skeptics that he still could swing. But perhaps it’s just as likely that he loved Hank and wanted others, especially younger listeners, who knew more about himself and Ron, to love Hank too. Certainly, Ron and Tony cater to Hank in only the most sophisticated ways; what they really do is stimulate some of his most modern playing in a ways that emphasizes how beyond time, style and fashion Hank really is. Is it a coincidence that Ethan has written lovingly about Hank and the Great Jazz Trio? At one point in a long essay about the GJT on Do the Math, I remember he said something about how the sonorities of the group on “Freedom Jazz Dance” (especially Tony’s rocking drums) presaged The Bad Plus. Maybe he and Tony’s fundamental motivations weren’t that different either.

It also occurs to me that the intergenerational combinations in jazz are really a function of the modernist era. I’ve been trying to think of pre-bop examples and nothing has really come to mind. For a long time in jazz, musicians mostly played with their peers, perhaps as a function of how the music grew stylistically and culturally and because it was basically a young music with only a few decades or so of history. But with the beginnings of bebop you see some curious mixing. Sid Catlett played on seminal bebop sides; he was one of the few drummers of his era with the flexibility to handle the new music, though he isn’t ideal. Coleman Hawkins, ever modern, hired beboppers like J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro and Max Roach. Young players who stuck with older styles in the first decades after bebop like Bob Wilber played with elders but Wilber was an outlier. More common were young modern players, particularly pianists, who were great accompanists and stylistically flexible and found a home with older players. Interestingly, the Detroit pianists are the best examples. Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan worked a lot with Hawkins, Roland Hanna traveled widely with Benny Goodman and Hank played with everyone young and old.

Younger vanguard musicians did not seek out older musicians all that often and the instances were rare enough that many folks didn’t quite know what to make of them. Mingus, always one of the more historically aware modernists, used Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones for the "Newport Rebels" recording in 1960 and there is that picture of Mingus playing at the Newport Rebels festival that year with Ornette Coleman (and Kenny Dorham and Roach). Of course, Mingus and Roach famously recorded with Ellington, who also met Coltrane on record, though the latter was the result of Impulse producer Bob Thiele’s matchmaking. Those Ellington tete-a-tetes both had the effect of emphasizing his beyond-category modernity.

(continued in Part 2)

Mark Stryker said...

(Part 2)

It was really Art Blakey who codified hiring younger musicians as a philosophy. On one of the Birdland records with Clifford Brown, you can hear Art say, “Yes, sir, I’m going to stay with the youngsters. It keeps the mind active.” At the time, he was just 34 (!) Miles’ first great quintet of the 50s was comprised of his peers; his second quintet was built around guys a generation younger pushing the leader into fresh territory. With both Art and Miles the age gap between themselves and their charges got bigger as the leaders aged. By the ‘80s and ‘90s and beyond intergenerational mixing increases, partly because you now have several generations essentially working within the broad modern mainstream and, frankly, as the older cats die, those who are left still want to play with musicians who can really function in their idiom. It also opens up opportunities for younger players to hire their elders. Still, one thing that’s different about Iverson hiring Heath from, say, Eric Alexander hiring Harold Mabern, is that Iverson’s fundamental idiom is not the bebop-based mainstream the way that Alexander’s is, so you get an additional interesting rub in the collaboration with the elder statesmen.

So, what are other intergenerational marriages borne of the impulse of the young musician’s desire to showcase the breadth and depth of the older musician’s conception? And what others mix players whose core idioms might at first glance seem at odds? Hmm. Branford Marsalis recording with Milt Hinton on “Trio Jeepy” (with Jeff Watts) comes to mind. Phil Woods recorded with one of his idols Benny Carter, but that’s a more “natural” pairing if you will. Must be others …

Coda: Yesterday's response had some unfortunate typos. Excuse the misspellings of Haynes and McPherson.

Unknown said...

I was totally captivated, even more than usual,
with Tootie's presence with Ethan and Ben.
It was a wonderful evening of offering and receiving sound with a true emphasis on "how" rather than "what". These are folks dedicated to the song and allowing the proceedings to blossom from the message of the tune.
I also loved the clarity and honesty of what was welcomed and shared. Their was love present for sure.
Reminded me of a quote I read recently by Duchamp. "I am not interested in art, I am interested in artists."
In regards to apprenticing or "reverse" apprenticing, I am a believer. I am
grateful for the opportunities I have had to play in bands led by Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Buster Williams, Denny Zeitlin, Cecil McBee and others. It has also been wonderful to invite them into my community of peers to inspire and express.
I am so glad to have both Mr. Redman and Mr. McBee on my first recording as a leader as well as inviting folks like Candido, Lee Konitz, Marshall Allen, Buster Williams, Ray Drummond, Bob Stewart and Bill Henderson as
colllaborators in projects.
I have more that I want to involve. I am always encouraging students to do the same. Learn from them while you can.
Thanks Ethan, Ben and Tootie for the simple beauty you offered to us.
Matt Wilson