A Listener’s Guide to the Work of “Tootie” Heath

Ethan Iverson & Ben Street choose 10 swinging albums

NINA SIMONE

Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem, 1958)

Tootie Heath took the influence of Kenny Clarke and spread it to other kinds of black music besides straight-ahead jazz. His brushwork here shows remarkable depth for a 22-year-old, and his naturally undulating pulse helped some of these tracks become Simone’s biggest hits.

WES MONTGOMERY

The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside, 1960)

This wasn’t a working band, just a thrown-together assemblage for a record date, but many consider this to be the greatest jazz guitar LP ever made. Brothers Percy and Tootie Heath provide an immaculate rhythmic carpet.

THE BOBBY TIMMONS TRIO

In Person (Riverside, 1962)

This marvelous trio with Ron Carter had tight arrangements and smooth rhythm. The band is kind of like a funkier version of the classic Ahmad Jamal Trio with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier: Indeed, Tootie knew Fournier personally and credits him as an important influence.

KENNY DORHAM

Trompeta Toccata (Blue Note, 1965)

On Dorham’s last album as a leader-and one of his best-four long tracks with diverse feels give Tootie plenty to do. Tootie was almost the house drummer for Riverside, which may be why he isn’t on as many Blue Note LPs. At any rate, it’s nice to hear Rudy Van Gelder’s touch on the drum sound here.

CLIFFORD JORDAN

These Are My Roots: Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly

(Atlantic, 1965)

Tootie is heard giving his unique weight to a variety of folkloric beats, including an early appearance of his virtuosic tambourine. Jordan and Tootie both loved the old music and loved to experiment. They can change from being tricksters to intoning the deepest blues in a single phrase.

CHARLES MCPHERSON

Bebop Revisited! (Prestige, 1965)

A great record that should be much better known, with Detroiters McPherson and Barry Harris partnering with Tootie, newcomer Carmell Jones and bassist Nelson Boyd for playful yet deadly serious bop.

SONNY ROLLINS

In Denmark I (Moon, 1992)

A bootleg, yes, but what a bootleg: the longest, most ferocious “Four” ever recorded, with Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen in 1968. Tootie kicks the Colossus along for over 40 minutes, neither giving the other any quarter.

HERBIE HANCOCK

The Prisoner (Blue Note, 1969)

Tootie preceded Billy Hart in Herbie’s first working band, a sextet. All three Hancock/Heath discs are great, but The Prisoner may be the best, with some of Hancock’s most intricate writing, marvelous Tootie/Buster Williams interaction and Joe Henderson solos that are simply outrageous.

CLIFFORD JORDAN QUARTET

Half Note (SteepleChase, 1974)

A rough-and-tumble live date from 1974, when down-the-middle music like this was going out of fashion. With Cedar Walton and Sam Jones, Tootie shows he is among the elite New York drummers like Billy Higgins and Louis Hayes.

ALBERT “TOOTIE” HEATH

The Offering (Daddy Jazz, 1998)

Tootie’s own albums include a few group efforts with peers, several with his brothers and now Tootie’s Tempo. The neglected gem of the bunch is this ultra-rare solo album, a dedication to his late son, Mtume Patrick Heath. In the liner notes, Scot Ngozi-Brown explains: “For Heath, Mtume’s death is a source of meditative reflection on life’s complexity and brevity.”