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Percy Heath: Modern Jazz Debut

In a career as distinguished and lengthy as that of bassist/cellist Percy Heath, it’s hard to find any new firsts. But the release of his new disc A Love Song (Daddy Jazz) is a milestone. Amazingly, Percy Heath had never issued a record as a leader until this seven-cut disc, which features several of his own compositions. In addition, Heath personally selected the players, among them pianist Jeb Patton, second bassist Peter Washington and brother Tootie Heath on drums and percussion.

“It was not some big deal to me because I never really thought about it,” Heath says. “Most of the records that I’ve ever made were always like partnerships to me, not a question about who would be the leader. With the Modern Jazz Quartet, we were a band. There was nobody’s name up there. It’s always been the same with the Heath Brothers. But when [producers] Andy Collins and Bill Siegel came to me and gave me a chance to record my own compositions, we went ahead and did it. I guess this another of those times when every tub stands on its own bottom,” Heath laughs.

A Love Song is more than just a curiosity. It serves as a showpiece for Heath’s dazzling technique on both bass and cello. The disc opens with the moving title song, which Heath had never recorded before. He played “A Love Song” at Milt Hinton’s memorial, although it was written more to reflect the general loss of love rather than as a tribute to one person. The second number, “Watergate Blues,” features Heath on cello, working nicely off Washington one moment and setting a spry pace the next. “I wanted to do some contrapuntal things, some songs with two basses, and rather than just overdub the parts I decided to use Peter because he’s an excellent young bassist,” Heath says. “The same is true for Jeb, who’s been playing with the Heath Brothers and who’s comfortable with my music.”

Heath’s long, stunning solo on John Lewis’ “Django” is both beautiful and technically formidable, while the nearly 14-minute long “Suite for Pop” was penned in tribute to Heath’s father and features three short sections sandwiched around the lengthy “Rejoice” segment that abruptly shifts the composition’s mood from reverential to joyous. Heath also covers Roland Hanna’s “Century Rag” and concludes with Patton’s “Hanna’s Mood,” which includes Patton’s strongest solo and more memorable bass playing from Heath.

While he is as ferocious a cellist as he is a bassist, Heath downplays his skills. “[Oscar] Pettiford was the one who could really play that cello like a bass. It wasn’t my innovation, just something that I’ve gotten better on over the years. I really call it jazz cello, cause I tune it like a bass and use the same fingering. That’s the trick, because there are a lot of bassists who just give up because they have such a tough time with the intonation.”

Although he’s been involved with more than 300 recording sessions, Heath knows he’ll be forever remembered for his participation in the MJQ. Following stints backing Clifford Brown and Howard McGhee, and having previously studied with Charles Mingus, in 1951 Heath, pianist John Lewis, vibist Milt Jackson and drummer Kenny Clarke (later replaced by Connie Kay) formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Today, Heath is the only surviving member of the MJQ, and says he still enjoys listening to various albums the group performed. “Sometimes I’ll hear one of our songs and come to my part and just think, did I really play that? There are so many great memories from that time.

“I still feel good, and I’m still able to enjoy playing with my brothers and making the music that I love, which is jazz. Music has always been a family thing, and playing with my brothers today keeps us all young.”