Praise the gourd
ALBERT “TOOTIE” HEATH & HIS COMPANY OF DRUMMERS
Drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and his company of drummers
lbert “Tootie” Heath was talking about drummer Max Roach’s signature rhythm on the 1951 Bud Powell tune “Un Poco Loco.” During his long career (more than six decades so far), Heath has played drums with scores of other jazz luminaries, but the brilliant pianist and composer Powell (1924-1966) was not one of them. “No, never, but I’ve been in rooms with him,” Heath told Pasatiempo. “I saw him at the Blue Note with Kenny Clarke. Bud would steal your drink. If you had a drink on the bar and you turned around to say hello to somebody, it’d be gone.”
The interview with Heath and drummers Loren Bienvenu and John Trentacosta took place in late March — three drummers and three drumsets in a small Santa Fe room — and their playing and talking about music barely interrupted the laughter at Heath’s never-ending stream of off-color references, jokes, and bawdy tales about other veteran jazzmen. “Here’s another song we can do,” he said, referring to their gig at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design on Saturday, April 8. “Oh my gourd,” the eighty-one-yearold Heath said with a laugh. “Ladies and gentlemen, our next song is called ‘Oh My Gourd.’ ” He took up a large gourd shaker and played a saucy rhythm, while the other two hit the skins and cymbals.
The trio is the latest edition of Heath’s kits-up-front band The Whole Drum Truth. He has presented The Whole Drum Truth all over the world with a rotating roster of drummers. Last October he played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for the ninetieth birthday celebration of his brother, saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Joining him for that date were drummers Sylvia Cuenca, Louis Hayes, and Joe Saylor. Other participants in the Tootie Heath unit over the years have included veteran jazz drummers Billy Hart, Charlie Persip, Ben Riley, Ed Thigpen, and Leroy Williams. “This particular group with John and Loren has been the one that has spent the most time together,” Heath said. “The other groups had some real top drummers, but none better than these guys.”
In a 2014 interview, Heath told Bienvenu (who has written for Pasatiempo) that he grew up in a musical household, his mother a member of the church choir and his father playing clarinet in a marching band and keeping the house bouncing with records by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Coleman Hawkins. Albert was still at home when his older brothers Jimmy and bassist Percy were getting their musical careers going, and some famous jazz players would visit. “Coltrane was always in the house with my brother [Jimmy]. They both played alto at the time. We began playing in this club in Philly called Red Rooster, and Coltrane got a chance to make a recording. He got Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and me. I couldn’t believe it. It was his first as a leader.”
Heath’s credits on other musicians’ albums number more than 350, beginning with drumming on 1950s records (when he was still in his early twenties) with Nina Simone, J.J. Johnson, Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, and Billy Taylor. His other multi-year, or at least multi-gig, associations during the ensuing two decades were with the Jazztet, with Herbie Hancock’s sextet, with Yusef Lateef, and with his brothers — the Heath Brothers collaborated on hard-bop jazz from 1975 to 1978.
Heath was the last drummer in the popular Modern Jazz Quartet, replacing Connie Kay. The long-lasting band was founded in 1952 with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and pianist John Lewis, who grew up in Albuquerque. “Right. I know,” Heath said. “Lady Lewis. That’s what Lester Young used to call him. ... That was endearing when he called you ‘Lady,’ that was something special. He called the producer George Wein ‘Lady Moonbeam’ ’cause he has a bald head.”
Despite that long list of credits, Heath’s discography as leader numbers only three: Kawaida (1969) with Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Don Cherry;
Kwanza (1973) with his brothers, trombonist Curtis Fuller, guitarist Ted Dunbar, and pianist Kenny Barron; and Tootie’s Tempo (2013) with pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus and bassist Ben Street.
The Whole Drum Truth has a repertoire of about 10 songs, or rhythms from songs. “These are not things that are not identifiable,” Heath said. “I think you can still hear the melodies.” During the interview the three played a little of “Poinciana,” a song that was immortalized by pianist Ahmad Jamal, bassist Israel Crosby, and drummer Vernel Fournier in 1958. “Loren usually starts,” Heath said. “We have some mallets, one stick and one mallet, until John comes in, then he plays so loud you’re going to have to leave the room.
“We call this [‘Poinciana’] a tribute to Vernel because that’s the rhythm he played on that song. Vernel grew up in New Orleans and he said when he was a kid he used to hear this band coming down the street, and the guy would have a cymbal on a coat hanger up on the bass drum. They’d be coming from a funeral or something and it got louder and louder, like a moving concert. And he applied that rhythm to ‘Poinciana’ and he made it work. What was the name of that club Ahmad had in Chicago? The Pershing. They played that hotel five nights a week and they got real tight. Vernel said Ahmad would allow Israel and him to experiment while he played a melody, and when he heard that one, he said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
The three next lit into a piece based on “Blues March” from the famous 1958 album Moanin’ by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “Usually we play solos and stretch it out a little further. Did you recognize any of that?” Then Trentacosta sang a little of the song’s melody. “Yeah,” Heath said, “but we have the melody in our heads, which is kind of unusual because the audience may or may not know what we’re doing.”
It was suggested that the audience might benefit from an electronic libretto system on the seat backs like at the Santa Fe Opera. When Heath made a face, Bienvenu said, “Isn’t that why you moved to Santa Fe? Your wife likes the opera, right?” “She does, but I don’t. It sounds like somebody’s standing on your foot.” (Heath howled grotesquely.) Trentacosta weighed in: “One of the things that Loren I and do, part of our job, is to keep the microphone away from Tootie at the concerts.”
After a run-through of “Oh My Gourd,” the drummers practiced the ending, with Heath tossing the gourd in the air for dramatic effect. After Heath taunted Trentacosta, “He has a football head. Look at that football head,” they put Heath’s glasses and beret on the gourd and they all agreed that it looked just like Heath. “You can’t tell the difference,” Heath laughed. “I hate you, John. I keep telling him,” he continued, facing his interviewer, “that if he keeps treating old people like that, something awful’s going to happen to him.
“You got to interview Loren. He has a real interesting background. I don’t have a background, I’ve got a blackground. No, you know, I’ve played with some great drummers, but these guys, not only are they great drummers but they can remember things, ’cause I can’t. These guys have made it into the music. I’m having the time of my life, and, you know, my life ain’t that long. I got one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel.”
The April 8 concert, presented by the Santa Fe Music Collective, also includes saxophonist Horace Alexander Young, whose career includes sideman duties on three Abdullah Ibrahim albums during the 1990s, and Tulani Mason on marimba and vibes.
I’m having the time of my life, and, you know, my life ain’t that long. I got one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peel. — Albert “Tootie” Heath
From left, drummers John Trentacosta, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Loren Bienvenu; photo Lea Morales