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Albert Heath: Kwanza

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A decade before the Marsalises triggered a bebop revival, seminal producer Don Schlitten was giving beboppers a recording outlet with Xanadu Records. A veteran jazz record producer who’d worked for RCA, Prestige and Muse, among many other labels, Schlitten founded Xanadu in 1975 and operated it with his wife Nina. (The label ceased issuing new recordings in 1990, though it was revived for a brief spell in 2009.) It quickly became a haven for the stars of the bebop era-Al Cohn and Barry Harris were prolific-to keep that music alive in an era when fusion, the avant-garde and Afrocentrism were jazz’s dominant aesthetics.

It was Schlitten who allowed a substantial number of artists to keep their head above water long enough to enjoy the 1980s jazz renaissance. Elemental Music’s Zev Feldman and Jordi Soley have this year made arrangements to celebrate Schlitten’s accomplishments with the release of the Xanadu Remaster Edition series: 25 of the label’s most essential releases, remastered and repackaged with new liner notes by English jazz writer Mark Gardner.

Which makes it interesting that the oldest of the first batch of six reissues, Tootie Heath’s 1973 sophomore effort Kwanza (The First) , wasn’t originally issued by Xanadu at all. It was a Schlitten production for Muse Records. (Xanadu acquired the rights in a legal settlement and reissued it on CD, under the title Oops! , in 1990.) It mixes the classic bebop sound with the then-contemporary sounds-e.g., funk rhythms on “Tafadhali,” Kenny Barron’s Fender Rhodes on “A Notion” and “Dr. Jeh”-associated with independent labels like Strata-East. It’s something of a sore thumb, but it’s also the first-ever recording of all three Heath brothers (Percy on bass, Jimmy on flute), eliminating any doubt as to its “essential” status.

The other remasters are of a piece with Schlitten’s vision. While flutist Sam Most’s From the Attic of My Mind, recorded in 1978, has cover art that’s as au courant as its title, its only departure from the hard-bop milieu is the gentle bossa “Breath of Love.” Heavy Love, tenor great Al Cohn’s 1977 match of wits with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bears down on the Songbook, evincing surprisingly hard-hitting tones from both players (even on ballads) that only intensify on the extemporaneous blues “Bar Talk.” And pianist Barry Harris, a bebop ideologue, beautifully maintains his Monk-and-Bud fundamentalism as he assays “Lady Bird,” “Soultrane” and other compositions of Tadd Dameron.

The best of the lot are Picture of Heath, Jimmy Heath’s 1975 quartet date with Harris, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Billy Higgins, and the double-shot Night Flight to Dakar and Xanadu in Africa, two albums drawn from a 1980 Cohn-led quintet concert in Senegal. Both the Heath and Cohn sessions are high-energy, intensive bop sessions, joyful and defiantly timeless.

Timeless, that is, except in their use of the bass-direct microphone, that most unfortunate (and ubiquitous) trend of 1970s jazz recordings. But don’t let that detract from the worthy Schlitten achievements that are being honored with these correspondingly worthy reissues.

Originally Published