Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath is highly respected by his peers and by serious listeners, but he isn't well known outside the jazz world in the way that Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane are. He played with those legends and many more. He formed The Heath Brothers in 1975 with his siblings, drummer Albert "Tootie Heath and bassist Percy Heath, and has penned numerous tunes that have become classics, including "CTA" and "Gingerbread Boy." Like Gillespie before him, he reaches beyond jazz in his endless artistic search, having penned suites, compositions for string quartets and a symphonic work.
The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, under the dual directorships of drummer Clarence Acox and multiple reedman Michael Brockman, enticed Heath into their fold for the timeless and marvelous Jimmy Heath: The Endless Search Suite. It is an orchestral offering that leaps out of the speakers with a rich fanfare of gorgeous harmony and tight rhythmic zest. Then Heath solos, and proves himself?for those unfamiliar?a giant of melodic invention and improvisational energy; in his eighth decade, and still kickin' it. For comparison's sake, Heath the soloist is probably closest to a fellow under-sung tenor man, George Coleman?another all-too-brief Davis cohort. Both saxophonists stay firmly within the mainstream, with extraordinary intelligence, invention and no-holds-barred verve.
Besides Heath's efforts, there is no shortage of premier soloing happening in the Seattle Repertory Orchestra. On the suite itself, Brockman wields an alto axe that cranks up the intensity a notch, giving way to a bright and shining trumpet turn by Jay Thomas. All this in the eight-plus minute "Part I." It stays just as stellar in "Part III: Where It Started." Heath, pianist Randy Halberstadt, the inimitable tenorist Hadley Caliman, and an especially inspired David Marriott, Jr. on trombone, all take things to the highest level of jazz improvisation.
The three-part suite leads into another Heath offering, "Sleeves." The saxophonist/composer sounds as if he's blowing from his gut in front of some Ellingtonian harmony. The guttural vibe goes deeper when baritone saxophonist Bill Ramsay gets his turn, his growl giving way to Mark Taylor's sweet and sour alto sax.
The great soloing is aided and abetted by terrific accompaniment from the rest of the orchestra, with arrangements that are by turns delicate or forceful, prowling or lilting, and always spot on.
Co-director Brockman contributes "Passage Noir," which begins with an ominous rollick, leading into a Gil Evans feel from the ensemble before Brockman takes an impassioned alto solo.
The disc closes with two classics?Charles Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song," riding the high horsepower drive train of Phil Sparks' insistent bass inside the wild horn play, followed by the gem, Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Song," with trumpeter Thomas Marriott cool-talking, Cootie Williams style, around the plunger mute. A fantastic wrap-up to one of the top big band efforts of the year.