The Heath Brothers March On : A Blog Supreme When Percy, Jimmy, Albert and Stanley met ... Nasir.
NPR logo The Heath Brothers March On

The Heath Brothers March On

Detail from the back cover of The Heath Brothers, Marchin' On. Strata-East Records hide caption

toggle caption
Strata-East Records

Detail from the back cover of The Heath Brothers, Marchin' On.

Strata-East Records

The Heath Brothers are at the Village Vanguard this week. The Heath Brothers! NPR Music and WBGO are doing it up as a live video webcast. You know the deal.

Most Heath Brothers recordings are out of print; I've only heard a small handful of them. I believe this cut is out-of-print too, but you may have heard it before. It's from their first album, Marchin' On:

This is Part II of the "Smilin' Billy Suite," for which Jimmy Heath gets a composition credit. Stanley Cowell is here on that metallic-sounding plucky instrument, the mbira. (I presume he's overdubbing, especially since Jimmy overdubs himself on another track on this album.) Cowell was not only the original pianist of The Heath Brothers band, but also the co-founder of Strata-East Records, where Marchin' On was issued.

A lot of Marchin' On has a similarly unusual, even experimental vibe to it. Jimmy plays flute quite a bit, as opposed to his usual tenor sax. Percy's bass is quite present in the mix; if it ever sounds like he's playing in a super high register, he may be playing what he calls a "baby bass" (not unlike a cello, it seems). There's some, but not lots of swing in the way we usually think of hard-bop swing. There is lots of mbira.

If you recognized this track, though, you probably recognized it as a sample in this:

That's Nas' "One Love," from the classic Illmatic, of course. One wonders if Nas knew that, like the subjects of his epistolary raps, Jimmy Heath also did a sizeable prison bid — and that he still found a way to smuggle original compositions out of jail!

Coincidentally, the latest Heath Brothers album is also a quartet record out on a musician-owned label. Endurance, from 2009, was made for bassist John Lee's Jazz Legacy Productions. Though it was recorded after oldest brother Percy Heath passed, it's a supple, swinging quartet affair, filled with Jimmy Heath's typically elegant tunes.

Compared to their debut as a band, it's much more Jazz As We Know It. But jazz, as we know, is a lot of things.