Smiling Billy Suite, From The Heath Brothers, Marching On, 1975
As the end of this little series grows near I’m resisting a temptation to slip in a few more recent items and going for older ones – like this one. I was vaguely conscious that there were two remarkable families who spanned the hard bop years and beyond – Jones (Thad, Hank and Elvin) and Heath. Then the three Heath brothers, Jimmy, Percy and younger sibling Albert formed a fine band in the mid-70s with Stanley Cowell on piano. There were various additions and substitutions over the years, but that basic line-up was the best – the feeling with Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums was different, for starters. Likewise, this long hard to find LP, their first, still seems the strongest, although the live set a few years later recorded in New York is almost as good and quite different in mood (though bassist Percy’s beautifully catchy Watergate Blues is repeated there.)
That first LP – not sure I ever had a copy, but there was a tape I made thanks to an enlightened librarian who snapped up one of the 2,000 copies Strata East pressed for the edification of the borrowers of Manchester – is strong for a bunch of reasons. The brothers work together superbly, unsurprisingly. There is a lot of great playing from all four, and especially from Jimmy Heath who sticks to flute much of the time, sometimes overdubbing two of them at once. He’s as undemonstratively masterful on flutes as he was on saxes. Equally important, as I realised more and more after this effort, he was an unusually gifted composer.
That’s on convincing display here, in a set of pieces that eschew any avant-garde influence, and hardly even dip into hard bop. They are just cleverly orchestrated tunes, making use of thumb piano duetting with the bass, or flutes and piano.
Smiling Billy Suite works up to some more heated sax in part 4, but is mostly in the gentler vein that marks the record. That isn’t to say it doesn’t all swing like anything, as the much-sampled bass line here attests. Part 1 begins with solo bowed bass, then brings in flute and piano over the plucked bass figure that recurs through the suite. It is determinedly oblivious to the fashions in jazz (and rock) of the time, just a set of beautifully crafted pieces, played by four masters, that are a pure pleasure to listen to.
In a sensible universe, this would have been a massive success, but despite the players involved – this was Percy Heath from the MJQ for heaven’s sake – in the mid-70s the LP was on offer from a musician owned and promoted label. They sold them at gigs, in other words.
However, in the mysterious way of the internet, it has now reappeared not just on YouTube but also on bandcamp – from a label who apparently reissued it but aren’t actually selling it any more as far as I can figure out. Oh well, it’s nice to listen to any way you can get it!
Why the No 50? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.
There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify