Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s second Riverside album, Really Big! is truly a gem, and for many it will be a previously undiscovered one. The personnel here is, as Keepnews mentions in his new set of liner notes, highly significant. Certainly, it was a feather in the cap of Keepnews and Riverside to be able to field a group that included Heath and his brothers, Percy (bass) and Albert (drums) as well as Clark Terry, Nat Adderley, Tom McIntosh, Dick Berg, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, Pat Patrick and, on separate tracks, Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan. But it also speaks to the tremendous respect that Jimmy Heath has always commanded from fellow musicians.
It might not sound like a radical idea now to record Jimmy Heath with a ten piece orchestra playing mostly his own compositions and arrangements, but back in 1960, when this recording was made, jazz was the purview of the small group—generally sextet or smaller. Count Basie was still leading a successful big band, as was Duke Ellington. A number of other stalwarts from the big band era were still playing and recording, but the milieu generally belonged to small ensembles. But the larger ensemble never really died out, even if it did go underground for awhile.
Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and a few other stalwarts continued to record and tour with their large bands, and talented arranger/composers like Charles Mingus, Thad Jones, Gil Evans, and others found ways to combine the power of the big ensemble sound with the excitement of the smaller, improvisational combo.
The opener, “Big P” is a tribute to brother Percy, and he introduces the track, getting it off to a swinging start. Heath’s tenor work on this album serves to remind what an excellent player he has always been. “Old Fashioned Fun” is a similarly swinging tune, with trombonist McInstosh and Flanagan soloing as well as Heath. With three saxes, two trumpets, trombone and French horn, Heath is able to make the group sound similar to a big band of eighteen pieces. Admittedly, there may be slightly less ‘punch’ at times, but the shadings and nuances are often filled in by the listener’s ear, a trick well-learned by Mingus and clearly by Heath as well.
Cannonball and Nat Adderley played on some really interesting albums featuring arrangements for bigger groups, including a couple by Gil Evans, at this time. Most listeners likely think of Adderley as a small group player and as a soloist, but he’s able to fit well into a sax section also. He does some great soloing as well, though, particularly on the Heath original “Nails” and the arrangement of “Green Dolphin Street.”
The mood is swinging throughout, although Heath does offer the gorgeous ballad tribute to his wife, “Mona’s Mood.” Really Big! is a Jimmy Heath album I was not familiar with, but it will certainly remain a favorite listen for years to come. I had the pleasure of seeing Jimmy Heath perform a few years ago at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and I was struck by the way his playing seemed both natural and yet well-thought-out at the same time. So it is with Really Big!, an album that delights on both an emotional and intellectual level.