One month before the magisterial tenor saxophonist-composer Jimmy Heath died on January 19, 2020 at 93, he put the finishing touches on the final album of his luminous 76-year career as a professional jazz musician. Titled Love Letter (Verve Records), it’s a posthumous masterpiece, the first occasion on which Heath — a well-established master practitioner of the ballad genre — presents an all-ballads recital.
Propelling the flow is a multi-generational all-star unit, including NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron, poll-winning guitarist Russell Malone, soulful vibraphone veteran Monte Croft, New York first-call bassist David Wong, and all-world drummer Lewis Nash. Augmenting the group on separate tracks are 21st century vocal superstars Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant, and trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis.
Love Letter includes Heath’s elegant arrangements of three less traveled originals culled from his enormous corpus. He distinctively interprets “Con Alma,” an essential jazz standard by Dizzy Gillespie, his lodestar from the moment they met in 1946. Joining him and Kenny Barron in erudite, tender dialogue on trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha” is Marsalis, who has presented Heath on numerous occasions at Jazz at Lincoln Center since 1992. On this unjustly obscure Dorham gem and the Arthur Herzog-Billie Holiday collaboration, “Don’t Explain” — indeed, on every track on Love Letter — Heath’s soulful, trenchant, urbane solo flights evoke his poetic spirit with old master concision and the authoritative chops of a musician half his age.
A highlight in a program of highlights is Cécile McLorin Salvant’s poignant tour de force portrayal of unrequited love that is at the core of Billie Holiday’s lyric on the blue ballad “Left Alone,” composed by Mal Waldron. Another is Gregory Porter’s world-weary yet gentle reading of Gordon Parks’ underground classic “Don’t Misunderstand” (introduced by O.C. Smith in the blaxploitation classic Shaft’s Big Score).
“Jimmy always wanted to know the lyrics of a song before playing it,” says Carol Friedman, who co-produced Love Letter with Grammy-winning producer Brian Bacchus. “That particular sensitivity no doubt contributes to the intimacy of his sound and is the reason he loved playing ballads — whether a tune had lyrics or not, he was singing with that horn. This is the record Jimmy never got to make. Asking him if he wanted to do an all-ballads album was predicated on decades of us talking about singers and love songs.”
Heath once told jazz writer Bill Milkowski, “You can’t ask for anything better than to be respected by your peers,” and the deep respect and esteem that Heath’s partners felt for the leader is palpable throughout the proceedings. “The feeling in the studio was great, with so much love for Jimmy,” says Malone, who flew overnight from India to New York and went straight to the recording studio to make it to the session. “We were there to play for him, to make things beautiful, and he made sure that every note was in place.”
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