Heath Brothers Offer Old-School Charm in Montreal
With its Old City, trendy Plateau district and namesake jazz festival (June 26–July 5), Montreal is a city full of charm.
A short walk or cab ride from the festival’s main drag, Rue Ste. Catherine, is the hole-the-wall jazz club Upstairs, located on the basement floor of a building on the bustling side street Mackay. (The venue’s upside-down logo reflects its cheeky style.)
On June 26, Upstairs was filled with a cosmopolitan jazz crowd for The Heath Brothers, led by 87-year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath and 79-year-old drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Both brothers were in full musical—and comedic—force, exchanging humorous asides with each other and the audience throughout the show.
Jimmy—who released a big-band album, Togetherness (Jazz Legacy Productions), earlier this year and was DownBeat’s cover subject in May—led the band through Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream.” “That was Strayhorn on a ‘stray horn,’” he quipped, after a shimmering solo on soprano.
The saxophonist next introduced the group’s honorary “third brother,” longtime pianist Jeb Patton, who first appeared with The Heath Brothers on 1998’s Jazz Family (Concord Jazz). The pianist proved to be in deep communion with Tootie throughout the night. He was featured on one of his own complex tunes in a trio setting with the drummer and bassist David Wong.
(Bassist Percy Heath, the oldest Heath brother and a founding member of the group and also a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, died in 2005.)
Parts of the set drew from 1940s material. Jimmy discussed his musical connection to his “namesake saxophonist” Jimmy Dorsey, before performing “I’m Glad There Is You.” He added that the Dorsey Brothers were an early influence on the Heaths.
Jimmy’s composition “You And Me” inspired a discussion of the song “There’ll Never Be Another You,” which was recorded by Chet Baker and Frank Sinatra. “There’ll never be another you … or me—or you or you,” he said, pointing into the crowd.
Trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s “On The Trail” was a nod to pianist Horace Silver, who had died the previous week at age 85. (Mitchell was a member of one of Silver’s most famous quintet lineups in the late ’50s and early ’60s.) “I’ve been on the trail for 87 years,” Jimmy joked.
Other songs in the set also hinted at the brothers’ longevity, though in a roundabout way. Jimmy told a story about working with Sun Ra saxophonist Pat Patrick, who played baritone on his second album, 1960’s Really Big! (Riverside). Heath’s composition “Longravity” was inspired by Patrick’s conflation of two words.
Amid the musical extravagance of the festival—the French cinematographic pop artist Woodkid drew a massive crowd on the same night for the official opening event—hearing the old-school charm of The Heath Brothers in a small club was like finding a hidden gem. The tiny, cave-like venue had something of the true soul of the city on this special night.