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Unbeatable

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One of the aspects that distinguishes New Orleans from other cities is the number of African traditions that have been maintained here through the 300 years of history. This includes everything from cooking techniques to the rhythms in jazz, rhythm and blues, and second-line music. Master drummer and percussionist Albert 'Tootie" Heath heard such rhythms while growing up in Philadelphia.

'There was a parade that practiced once a week across the street from me," he says during a telephone call from California. 'I joined the group eventually and got the rhythms. It came over the grapevine. There were some second-line recordings, but they were rare." Heath brings what he's learned during more than 50 years as a first-call jazz drummer to 'The Whole Drum Truth" concert at the Contemporary Arts Center. Heath will lead an all-percussion band that includes Billy Hart, Louis Hayes and New Orleans native son Idris Muhammad " some of the top drummers in the world. Hart has his own band now and cut his teeth playing with everyone from Wes Montgomery to McCoy Tyner to Miles Davis. Hayes made his name holding down the rhythm section for the bands of Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver when both bands were burning up recording studios and bandstands around the world. Muhammad is known as one of the funkiest drummers ever from his recordings, both solo and with Lou Donaldson and Dr. Lonnie Smith in the late '60s and early '70s. Born Leo Morris, he started off playing with the Hawkettes and Alvin 'Red" Tyler. Now he's with the amazing Ahmad Jamal. Heath has played with all the greats, including Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Herbie Hancock.

The idea to bring four drummers together onstage came from a conversation between Heath and several other rhythmatists in the famous kitchen of the Village Vanguard in New York's Greenwich Village. Producer Jonathan Sanoff overheard Heath telling several other musicians a story about trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke. 'Diz had a cymbal that sounded like an ashcan, and he asked every drummer he hired to play it," says Heath, laughing. 'Most of the guys wanted the gig, so they said yes. Kenny said, "Sure, I don't mind, but only if you don't mind playing with this mouthpiece I've got in my pocket.' That ended the cymbal thing with Diz. Jonathan heard that and got the idea to do a workshop and performance with just drummers."

The group first performed at Yale University and has traveled to the Johannesburg Festival in South Africa and Amsterdam. 'It's a chance to hear four people who are known for their accompaniment to be featured," Heath says. 'It shows their music and dynamic ability that you don't usually see. It's unusual because it's drummers playing together and doing duets and trios and utilizing a wide range of dynamics." Each drummer brings a featured piece with solos and ensemble work. 'We'll do some Ornette Coleman music that is very rhythmic and some Dizzy pieces. That's nice percussion work if done dynamically," explains Heath. 'We'll also do some original things like my tune "Tootie's Tempo' and a tribute to Max Roach in 5/4 time. I think it will be interesting because Billy, Louis and Idris are the top guys around." Heath adds, 'Drummers have all sorts of different musics in their repertoire because drummers have to play everything " bossa nova, Latin, Indian, all sorts. Drummers are probably more educated in terms of rhythm and culture than other instrumentalists. It's required. If you are going to play with other people, you have to know their culture."

Albert "Tootie" Heath leads a talented ensemble of - drummers in an all-percussion performance.
  • Albert "Tootie" Heath leads a talented ensemble of drummers in an all-percussion performance.

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