In honor of and appreciation for drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath’s acknowledgment and accolades at last week’s NEA Jazz Master induction ceremony, I’ve been listening to a ton of Tootie. He has a distinctive voice on the drums and has been so active for the last 60+ years that it’s quite difficult to narrow down just ten tracks. And as a live performer, what a dynamic charming force he is. I was fortunate to see him at the helm of two remarkable performances by The Whole Drum Truth ensemble for which he was the leader and visionary, bringing together drum giants like Ed Thigpen, Ben Riley, Louis Hayes, and others to show audiences just how much music can be made without pitched instruments.
In addition to artists cited below, I left out some wonderful music by artists including Clifford Jordan, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, and Milt Jackson, among many others. I also grudgingly glossed over his still-potent recent output as well as his catalog with the Heath Brothers band (along with his older siblings Jimmy and Percy, collectively putting them aside Hank, Thad, and Elvin Jones among the great sibling groups in jazz history). Without any further ado, here are my picks, in chronological order.
1 ) “What Is This Thing Called Love” from J.J. In Person! by J.J. Johnson (recorded 1958)
I learned this arrangement when I was a senior in high school and attending the Artists’ Collective in Hartford, and I was (and still am) knocked out by how hard it swings. The version reissued on The Trombone Master leaves out the canned stage patter, but either way it’s delightful hearing Tootie swinging up a storm alongside J.J., Nat Adderley, Tommy Flanagan, and Wilbur Little in his first high-profile ongoing gig (not to diminish his important contributions to the prior debut albums by Nina Simone and some guy from Philly named Coltrane).
2 ) “Airegin” from Incredible Jazz Guitar by Wes Montgomery (recorded 1960)
I’m not sure if this was the first time I heard Tootie, but it was the first time I really noticed. I had read that Jimmy and Percy had a younger brother who played drums and had a funny nickname and thought that was cute. Then when I was 17 a friend played me this album and it only took one track (this one) to realize that this was someone quite capable of driving a powerful band.
3 ) “Autumn Leaves” from In Person by Bobby Timmons (recorded 1961)
This album, recorded live at the Village Vanguard 60 years ago with a young Ron Carter on bass, is on the short list of most swinging things I’ve ever heard. To hear Tootie drive the band with sticks, “Dat Dere” is a good choice, but the way he drives the trio using only brushes on this track is just remarkable.
4 ) “Gemini” from Triple Threat by Jimmy Heath (recorded 1962)
In large part because so much of the Heath Brothers band’s recorded output is out of print, I went elsewhere to represent the three of them playing together. This driving waltz is one of Jimmy’s signature compositions, and the brothers’ chemistry is enhanced here by Freddie Hubbard, Julius Watkins, and Cedar Walton (himself another important Tootie collaborator over the years).
5 ) “The Prisoner” from The Prisoner by Herbie Hancock (recorded 1969)
Because Tootie is so well-represented on hard-swinging straight-ahead records, I’ve seen him pigeonholed within that realm. Not that being superlative in that vein is a bad thing, but he has done much more than that, and the way he propels this edgy, modern track, amplifies the lush orchestrations, and puts a fire under the soloists (Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles, and Herbie) is something to behold. It’s not the first such example (dig Today and Tomorrow, for example, McCoy Tyner’s 1963 tour de force) but it’s a particularly potent one.
6 ) “Nubian Lady” from The Gentle Giant by Yusef Lateef (recorded 1971)
This infectious track illuminates a couple things. One is his output with Yusef Lateef’s band (an assemblage I have such fond memories of talking about with his fellow Philadelphian Kenny Barron, who composed this tune). The other is just how gnarly his R&B backbeat is. There are other great examples, some iconic (Herbie’s “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”) and some maybe less well-known (such as several tracks on Kenny Barron’s Peruvian Blue and “Everything Must Change” from Tootie’s most recent bandleader album, Philadelphia Beat with Ben Street and Ethan Iverson), but I challenge anyone to find a nastier groove than this.
7 ) “Oops” from Kwanza (the First) (recorded 1973)
This whole album is just delightful, and as such it’s a little weird not to pick any of the tunes that also include Kenny, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and guitarist Ted Dunbar. But this playful, interactive track is a rare occasion to hear Tootie alone with Jimmy (here on flute) and Percy (who has the featured melodic role in the trio), with results that are smile-inducing for reasons well beyond sentimentality.
8 ) “I’ll Remember April” from Catalonian Nights, Vol. 2 by Tete Montoliu (recorded 1980)
I could easily have done a Top 10 list of just Tootie’s European performances with American expatriates like Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, and Ben Webster. But in picking one I had to go with the great Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu. I could have picked anything from a half dozen sessions dating back to the 1968 Piano for Nuria album (not to mention shared sideman sessions with Anthony Braxton and the Ben Webster/Don Byas group) but ultimately picked this volcanically burning performance from their last sessions together, a run of 3 nights of recorded live shows in Barcelona.
9 ) “Along Came Betty” from Moment to Moment by The Jazztet (recorded 1983)
Tootie was an early member of the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, making his first recordings with them in 1960. When they reunited and made in the early 1980s alongside original trombonist Curtis Fuller, there was Tootie laying it down on their first two records of this second wave. Here he swings hard alongside Ray Drummond and Mickey Tucker, laying it down on one of the most iconic songs from the pen of Golson, another important fellow Philadelphian.
10 ) “Song for Rwanda” from Hey Donald by Roscoe Mitchell (recorded 1994)
One doesn’t necessarily think of rubato free jazz when one thinks of Tootie, but like his funk backbeat, it’s not because it’s not in his bag. This stirring performance puts him alongside Roscoe and his fellow Chicagoans Malachi Favors and Jodie Christian.