Photo by Michael Perez
Photo by Michael Perez

Catching Up With…

Albert “Tootie” Heath

The essence of jazz is evident on his latest, Philadelphia Beat—and that means swinging and searching.

by Ken Micallef

“Art Blakey always said, ‘It’s not what you play in between, it’s how you start and how you end a piece.’” Albert “Tootie” Heath, one of the few drummers to know the legendary Blakey as a young big band player, has lent his graceful rhythms to the music of Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, and other jazz greats in a career that spans fifty years. At a spry seventy-nine, Heath continues to evolve, as evidenced by his three records with Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson and renowned session bassist Ben Street. As with 2013’s Tootie’s Tempo, the recent Philadelphia Beat shows the trio following unusual paths as they swing down the house—from beat 1 to the final chorus.

“These guys play the same music I’ve been born and bred with, but they have a different approach,” Heath says. “Ethan is unpredictable. You might think he’s going to play something you know, then he adds something very different. Ben plays unexpected notes, but they’re correct. These guys challenge me to not play the same old stuff.”

Heath plays drumset, mallets, tambourine, and brushes on Philadelphia Beat, bringing his grand groove to bear on swing, ballads, bossa, and more exotic fare. “Pentatonic Etude” features his graceful mallet work; “Con Alma” is a lesson in tambourine technique. “I got that mallet thing from Brazilian surdo drummers,” Tootie explains. “As they play a specific rhythm they mute the drum to stop it from vibrating. You’re controlling the rhythm of the beat that way. Speed is popular now, but this is something else. It’s to do with tone and rhythm.

“I learned tambourine in church,” Heath continues. “That rhythm became the jazz cymbal beat. In the early days there was always a little gospel in jazz. The tambourine is played in many cultures. That particular technique I learned from John Bergamo at CalArts. It allowed me to be more explorative. You have to have confidence, whatever instrument you’re playing.”