“You know man, people always sayin’ jazz is dead – but jazz is like roaches, you can’t kill it,” said saxophone legend Jimmy Heath with a cackle.
That statement rang true last Tuesday night as the next generation of jazz, the Temple Jazz Band, joined Heath on stage for his 80th Birthday Hometown Celebration at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.
Heath, a Philadelphia native, shared the stage with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis in his more than 60-year career as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger.
Between 1947 and 1948, one of Heath’s first big bands in Philadelphia even included a young John Coltrane.
The tenor saxophonist has contributed to more than 100 albums, written more than 125 compositions and received three Grammy nominations.
But once Heath joined his young band mates on stage, there was no pecking order – it was all about jamming.
The feet were tappin’ and the fingers were snappin’ as the Temple Lab Band, under the direction of trumpet great Terell Stafford, kicked off the night with a rendition of Bill Potts’ “Big Swing Face.”
It instantly brought the crowd back to the big band days and for a “training band,” they were undeniably gifted. The piece wound through portions of steady softness, then unleashed waves of brass held together with brilliant drumming and bass work.
Flawless solos from lead trumpet Kenny Lucky and nimble playing from pianist Jon Coyle complimented the solid upright bass work of his brother, Chris Coyle and the subtle, yet commanding rhythms of drummer Andrew Martinek. The ensemble wrapped up their one song set as powerfully as they began the intro.
Then it was time for the star of the show. Heath strolled onto stage and the crowd erupted in applause, but he kept the coolness of a veteran “jazzer.”
While the gentleman donned a sax that was more than half his size, he had the stage presence of a giant and immediately was recounting hilarious, uplifting stories from his glory days, even spitting some freestyle raps.
With Heath at the helm, the Temple Jazz Band picked right up with “Four Brothers,” a Jimmy Giuffre arrangement. The set came in urgently, but sustained a perfect synchronicity with high-pitched shrills from the trumpet section and bellowing, raging trombone fillers behind stand-out sax work.
Heath taught the Jazz Band a lesson or two and they were noticeably inspired, while Heath demonstrated his shared respect for the “young bucks” by shuffling around and yelling raspy, approving “Yeahs!” from time to time.
The off-the-cuff group then delved into seven original Heath classics like “Big P,” a dedication to his brother Percy, a jazz legend in his own right on the double bass and cello. Heath emitted crunchy, smooth notes, trading solos with the five-member sax section.
Fellow tenor saxophonist, lead Sophie Faught, embarked on a rambling, melodic solo midway through the selection causing Heath’s face to light up. Guitarist Michael Greco’s solos were sultry and seemed effortless with hints of a Hawaiian sound while deep bass echoes resonated through the concert hall.
Another note-worthy medley was “No End,” a rhythmic selection showcasing muffled
trombones, melancholic trumpet solos and a Latin-sounding cadence which created a smoother club-feel.
Bassist Justin Carney picked up a bow for the intro, returning later to his agile plucking while drummer Matt Scarano laid down impeccable drum rolls and cymbal work and Jonathan Katz belted out stunning solos on the clarinet. Heath then shifted gears taking the band into an impressive finale, even coaching them up until the song’s sensual last note.
Heath then announced the last song, “Ginger Bread Boy,” but Stafford and the Jazz Band had a different plan. Instead of starting the piece, the group tricked Heath and went into a rousing performance of “Happy Birthday” with the crowd singing along and Stafford even picking up the trumpet.
After pulling a fast one on the legend, the band went back to the original plan. Heath saved the best for last with this tune, dancing like someone half his age. “Ginger Bread Boy” began with an epic intro to a spunky, rat-scat drum beat from Scarano and led into impressive solos from the sax section, choppy, yet flowing trombone work and trumpet solos that even Dizzy would be proud of.
The selection showcased the talents of every member of the band – together they were a dynamic force. Heath was loving every minute of it.
Ending with thunderous drumming, the song came to close as did the evening. Heath said his goodbyes and the crowd gave him an even more thunderous standing ovation.
The concert bridged the young and old on stage as well as in the crowd, passing the torch to a whole new age group of jazz fans. It was evident, as Heath predicted, that jazz will not be killed off any time soon.
Cody Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.