THE ALBUM PASSING THRU... -- Columbia, JC 35573. THE CONCERT AT BLUES ALLEY -- January 3 to 6, three sets nightly; with Stanley Cowell.
Just turn on your television during the holiday season and you're inundated with families: the Osmonds, Cash/Carters, the Crosbys and whoever else has enough relatives to fill a sound stage.
Family acts have been common in show business for generations: circus familiaes like the Wallendas, comedy families like the Marx Brothers, dancing families like the Ritz Brothers, and singing families from the Mills Brothers to the Pointer Sisters. Today's pop music has its share: the Wilson sisters (Heart), the Wilson brothers (Beachboys), the McGarrigle Sisters, the Davies brothers (Kinks).
As for the jazz world, relatives work together, too, though they often carve out their individual reputations alone. Keyboardist Gap Mangione can be found in brother Chuck's ensemble and Randy and Michael Brecker are rarely apart.
Still, bloodline does not necessarily mean musical kinship, and some musicians find relatives better holiday company than musical cronies.
Which makes "Passing Thru" by the Heath Brothers a little unusual. "Passing Thru," one of the best jazz albums of the year, shows that featured players who happen to claim the same parents can share artistic passion as well.
The Heaths, who open a three-night run at Blues Alley Wednesday, are no strangers to the jazz scene, having have jammed apart and as brothers.
After leaving Dizzy Gillespie's group, big brother Percy played bass in the Modern Jazz Quartet for 22 years. Saxophonist Jimmy worked with Gillespie, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef and a host of others. Kid brother Albert (Tootie), who has drummed behind Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew, now leads his own band.
On "Passing Thru," Albert is billed as "special guest," since he officially left his brothers when he formed his own group. He still fits in like one of the family.
In fact, everyone seems right at home. There isn't a weak moment on "Passing Thru," from the opening measures of Jimmy Heath's "A New Blue" to the closing be-bop of Kenny Dorham's "Prince Albert." Each player is given ample space to breathe, and the results are stunning.
Some might say that "Passing Thru" lacks fire, that while the songs are precise and beautifully constructed they're safe and confined compared to some modern jazz styles.
In fact, that's the criticism that has followed Percy Heath's Modern Jazz Quartet throughout most of its career. But structured music does not necessarily mean simple music. The subtleties displayed on "Passing Thru" are intricate, growing out of years of perfecting styles and sounds. What the ensemble often lacks in raw power it compensates for in depth and sheer musical skill.
Take Jimmy Heath, who evokes a romantic mood on "Light of Love" and a gentle up-tempo touch during "Changes." Or Percy, a rock of stability in the MJQ rhythm section who not only anchors all the pieces, but solos magificently in "Yardbird Suite" and "In New York." As for Albert, whose cymbal embellishments are perfectly suited to all the compositions, well, he softly but firmly drives the quicker numbers.
Pianist Stanley Cowell also proves lyrical and stylish. Cowell, whose recorded work ranges from pseudo-disco to free-form, turns in stellar performances on "Light of Love" and "In New York" and generally compliments Jimmy's sax riffs. And, just to keep it in the family, "A New Blue" and "Mellowdrama" are enhanced by percussionist Mtume -- Jimmy Heath's son.
Despite the Heath Brothers' traditional backgrounds, they're not afraid to experiment. Jimmy Heath's brass arrangements include charts for two French horns, trombone and tuba -- a surprisingly warm mix. Guitarist Tony Purrone adds some deft work to four of the album's eight tracks. No tune relies on proven formulas.
The Heath Brothers have performed together with Stanley Cowell on and off since 1975, but "Passing Thru" is their first album for Columbia and it's easily their best to date. It should be interesting to hear them live when the group passes through town next week.
The Heaths' pure, listenable jazz suggests that the family that stays together can also play together.