“Elegance in Action” would make an apropos alternate title for Love Letter, the final album released by saxophone great Jimmy Heath, who died at 93 in January. The Philadelphia native’s recording career dates back more than seven decades and includes work on more than 100 albums, and he goes out on a ridiculously high note: Heath and a roomful of blue-chip talents deliver a set of ballads that take full advantage of his still-robust playing and unique gifts as a bandleader, composer, and arranger.
Highlights are plentiful. Heath harmonizes with and plays against guest trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha” and offers a rangy, brawny solo, his big warm tenor spinning a series of dramatic lines, bouncing off the stately forward motion of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist David Wong, and drummer Lewis Nash. Moving to soprano, Heath provides a delicate melody reading and questing improvisation on his “Inside Your Heart,” with lush accompaniment by vibraphonist Monte Croft, guitarist Russell Malone, Wong, and Nash. He pairs beautifully, too, with vocalists. Cécile McLorin Salvant fronts a gorgeous reading of the Mal Waldron-Billie Holiday gem “Left Alone,” and Heath’s tenor picks up where Salvant leaves off. Gregory Porter’s rich baritone enlivens Gordon Parks’ poignant “Don’t Misunderstand,” another showcase for the leader’s provocative tenor work.
Heath contributes two more pieces: His smoky tenor sound drives the wistful theme of opener “Ballad from Upper Neighbors Suite,” and “Fashion or Passion” has him sparring with Croft’s vibes before the two and Malone embark on unhurried, fruitful solos. The saxophonist nods to old friend and mentor Dizzy Gillespie with a version of Latin-to-swing classic “Con Alma” lifted by Nash’s masterful brushwork and solo turns by Heath on tenor, Malone, and Croft. It’s all a welcome sonic balm for troubling times.