Love Letter (Verve)

Jimmy Heath

Released July 17, 2020

DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2012




Verve recently announced the release of Jimmy Heath’s final recording, an album completed just one month prior to the saxophonist’s death on Jan. 19 at the age of 93.

Love Letter, a collection of ballads that spans covers like “Con Alma” and Heath originals, counts contributions by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Lewis Nash and vocalists Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant. For the album, the bandleader mainly stuck to alto saxophone, picking up the soprano for “Inside Your Heart,” a piece originating in a 2010 suite Heath recorded with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.

In Heath’s obituary, DownBeat contributor Ted Panken wrote of the late saxophonist’s enthusiasm for mentoring young musicians: “Like his lodestar, Dizzy Gillespie, to whom he dedicated the song ‘Without You, No Me,’ Heath also excelled as a communicator, conveying information he’d accrued as a performer, composer and public figure. He did this both formally—helping found the master’s degree in jazz studies program at Queens College—and informally, in off-the-cuff conversations with dozens of acolytes.”

Despite Love Letter being the final work of a performer who started leading recording dates about 60 years ago, there’s no indication that Heath’s powers were at all diminished; the recording depicts a musician keenly engaged with his material, aiming to explore the nuances of each and every composition. “Jimmy always wanted to know the lyrics of a song before playing it,” said Carol Friedman, co-producer of Love Letter. “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.”


Track Listing:

1. Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite (Jimmy Heath) 04:22

2. Left Alone (Billie Holiday / Mal Waldron) featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant 04:29

3. Inside Your Heart (Jimmy Heath) 04:51

4. La Mesha (Kenny Dorham feat. Wynton Marsalis 07:13

5. Don’t Misunderstand (Gordon Parks) feat. Gregory Porter 05:31

6. Con Alma (Dizzy Gillespie) 05:13

7. Fashion or Passion (Jimmy Heath) 05:45

8. Don’t Explain (Billie Holiday) 07:08


Jimmy Heath: tenor saxophone

Wynton Marsalis: trumpet (4)

Kenny Barron: piano

David Wong: bass

Lewis Nash: drums

Cécile McLorin Salvant: vocals (2)

Gregory Porter: vocals (5)

Monte Croft: vibraphone (1–3, 6, 7)

Russell Malone: guitar (2, 3, 6, 7)

Recorded at Sear Sound; 800 East Studios; Aum Studio, Bakersfield

Producer: Brian Bacchus, Carol Friedman

Recorded by Brian Boozer, Ken Gregory, Owen Mulholland

Mixed and Mastered by David Darlington

Photography by Carol Friedman

Edited by Fran Cathcart


Love Letter, completed just weeks before Jimmy Heath’s death in January, represents a significant first: Of the saxophonist’s more than 20 albums as a leader, this poignant farewell is his only recording solely consisting of ballads. Throughout the album’s eight down-tempos—a selective complement of lesser-known pieces and time-honored standards—Heath reveals a refined emotionality that bebop hubbub seldom allows. Take his long, mournful tenor solo on “Don’t Explain,” one of the album’s two nods to Billie Holiday, or the disarming lilt of his soprano on “Inside Your Heart.” Reflective moments like these define the album, but the recording’s success rests in no small measure on the subtle responsiveness of Heath’s rhythm section. His generous arrangements underscore the value he accorded these players, as on “Con Alma,” where a twisting melody finds its rhythmic center in drummer Lewis Nash and bassist David Wong’s decisive groove. The same goes for pianist Kenny Barron’s velvety setting on “La Mesha,” Heath’s wistful duet with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Heath also pairs off with two other formidable guests: vocalist Gregory Porter, on a version of “Don’t Misunderstand” that’s so crushing future balladeers might pause before taking it on; and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, on “Left Alone,” an aching melody that undergirds Holiday’s despondent lyric about isolation and loss. During the outro of that latter tune, Heath faithfully echoes Salvant’s phrases, but drops out before the final line. The unvoiced riff rings all the louder for its absence.

Suzanne Lorge (DownBeat)