Celebrating a 75th birthday, sax legend Jimmy Heath gathered colleagues and pals for a concert of jazz standards, most of which were his own compositions, in what turned out to be a gathering of great spirit and spunk. In a career that has spanned a half-century, the diminutive Heath played alongside Dizzy, ‘Trane, Miles and Bird, prompting the concert title, “He Walked With Giants.”
Opener united Jimmy with his brothers, with Albert setting an infectious rhythmic pattern on solo tambourine, no less, and Percy plucking a cello, for “South Filthy,” an affectionate nod to the gospel roots of their Philadelphia youth. Trombonist Slide Hampton joined the trio for a waltzing spin on Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream,” heightened by Jimmy’s warm and sweeping soprano tones.
LCJO frontman Wynton Marsalis, and Antonio Hart joined forces for a gentle swinging Heath original, “Sleeves,” buoyed by the rich emotional fiber of Heath’s tenor sax. He plays with familiar studied grace and a clear lean tone. There is an economy of thought in his supple rhythmic patterns and an incisive flow of invention.
By the time the politely mannered first half came to a halt, the group had grown to become a nonet for a funky jaunt on “A Time and a Place,” with Heath as the dominate voice. Hampton’s infectious loping solo was followed by trumpeter Ryan Kisor trading measures with Marsalis in what turned out to be the evening’s first rush of excitement.
The big band assembled for the concert’s second half, with Heath conducting and clearly loving every moment. Literally dancing as he led the ork, Heath conducted a concerto, “Like a Son,” which he penned for protege, Antonio Hart. The latter invested his own beautifully framed alto solo with a customary stately sonority (Hart is primed to follow Heath as director of jazz studies at Queens College.)
“The Voice of the Saxophone” is Heath’s own fondly structured tribute to his hero, Coleman Hawkins. Here, the rich unity of the brass section served to bookend Heath’s graceful melodic solo. Closer, a dazzling “Gingerbread Boy,” drew sparks from both a rippling Marsalis solo and Joe Temperley’s long romping baritone ride. The tune, dedicated to Heath’s son, brought the evening to level of soaring intensity.