Praise the gourd


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

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

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