Jimmy Heath is 90 years old. His kid brother Albert (Tootie) is 80. They don’t act or sound their ages. For their concert at the Portland Jazz Festival, the Heath Brothers were billed as paying tribute to Dizzy Gillespie in the 100th anniversary year of his birth. Indeed, they played in the bebop tradition that Gillespie and Charlie Parker pioneered, but most of the pieces were Jimmy Heath compositions. He told the audience that his tune “Winter Sleeves” is based on the harmonies of the standard song “Autumn Leaves.” “That way,” he said, “I’m the one who gets the royalties.”
Jimmy handled the introductions and the verbal and physical comedy, although from behind his drum set Tootie contributed a couple of jibes. With the looseness of a teenager, Jimmy broke into boogaloo moves or hand jive demonstrations to accompany his banter. When the comedy subsided, the fooling around ended. In his tenor and sopran0 saxophone solos, Jimmy demonstrated that he has lost none of his warmth, smooth phrasing and composer’s sense of continuity. Tootie continues as an incisive soloist and one of the most effective drum accompanists in jazz. He melded with bassist Michael Karn and pianist Jeb Patton to form a rhythm section that supported the elder Heath impressively and responded to Jimmy’s every solo turn. The power and story-telling aspects of Patton’s own improvisations stimulated bursts of applause, notably when he soloed in Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and Jimmy Heath’s jazz standard “Gingerbread Boy.”
Replacing the ailing George Cables, Patton came back for the second half of the double-bill concert led by tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson. In this case the bassist was Corcoran Holt from Washington, DC, the drummer Willie Jones III from Chicago. Jackson’s guest was alto saxophonist Donald Harrison. Alumni of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the saxophonists
opened with “One By One,” a staple of the Blakey repertoire. (Jackson photo by Mark Sheldon.) In that piece and in Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation,” the group achieved enormous momentum. Long solos were the order of the evening with Harrison indulging himself in an unaccompanied coda to “Misty” that went on several bars longer than its content justified. Jackson dedicated his “Mr. Sanders” to the saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. In his lengthy solo he incorporated passages that may have been inspired by Sanders’s free-jazz rambles. Following an incisive Corcoran bass introduction, Jackson brought out his lyrical side for “When I Fall in Love,” a mid-1950s ballad hit for Nat Cole. Toward the end of the concert’s second hour, Jimmy Heath joined Jackson and Harrison for a guest turn on Heath’s “(There’s) A Time And a Place,” a tune frequently covered by other jazz players. It was a strong ending to a concert that was stimulating and—thanks to the voluble leaders Heath and Jackson—entertaining.
After guitarist John Abercrombie found it necessary to pull out of the Portland Festival, the management signed blues singer and guitarist James Blood Ulmer to fill the Sunday afternoon slot. It may have occurred to devotees of Abercrombie’s playing, which grew out of bebop, that Ulmer was an unlikely replacement. Still, he attracted a fair-sized crowd for a concert that resounded with the elements that have given him an audience. Tall, dressed dramatically in a white suit, seated on a piano bench facing a semicircle of speakers and amplifying equipment, Ulmer gave his listeners ninety minutes of blues, semi-blues and quasi-blues.
He introduced elements of R&B, reggae, rock, country and what a fellow listener told me was free funk. Worse luck, either Ulmer or the sound engineer added so much distortion to his voice that many of his lyrics were unintelligible. His devilish laughter in a piece called “Poor Devil” was quite clear. He occasionally executed guitar runs that had distinct bebop or post-bop flavors, but their intriguing musical content never lasted more than a few seconds. It would be interesting to hear him work out some of those ideas on a moderately amplified guitar without distortion. Ulmer’s last-minute festival billing was “Harmolodic Blues Solo Guitar.” That suggests a relationship with Ornette Coleman, who introduced the idea of harmolodics as a system of composition and playing unbounded by traditional notions of tonality, time and tempo. Fair enough, but a preponderance of what Ulmer delivered this time was muddled by acoustic distortion. And there was precious little solo guitar.
As always, thanks to Mark Sheldon for his wonderful photographs.