"I think we should play some bebop," said Ethan Iverson, sitting at An Die Musik's piano Saturday night, "because on stage we have one of the greatest bebop drummers ever." He nodded toward the leader of his trio, Albert "Tootie" Heath, who proved the accuracy of his pianist's claim by busting up a rapid rendition of Charlie Parker's 'Ornithology' with several knock-about drum solos. The 79-year-old Heath no longer played with the physical power of his youth when he recorded with Dexter Gordon and J.J. Johnson, but his ability to find new phrasing for syncopated rhythms was sharper than ever.
Heath's trio took advantage of An Die Musik's live acoustics and intimate dimensions to play with no amplification whatsoever. "I'm so glad I don't have to holler into a mic," Heath told the crowd before launching into one of his hilarious monologues. The lack of amplification worked only because Heath is a master of tasteful restraint on the drums and because Ben Street gets an unusually big sound out of his upright bass. "You hear that?" Heath told the crowd. "That's the real sound of a bass you're hearing."
Iverson, best known for being one-third of the Bad Plus, remained melodic at all times, even when taking off on improvisatory tangents. But the character of each tune came from Heath. He revealed his roots in Philadelphia's black churches by playing tambourine on a churchy arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's 'Con Alma.' Heath swung hard on Duke Ellington's 'Satin Doll,' churned up a New Orleans parade beat on 'The Charleston,' and swirled his brushes on 'Violets for Your Furs,' a ballad from his first collaboration with John Coltrane.
The audience was captivated, but grinning broadly above his red-and-white bow tie, Heath seemed to be having the most fun of anyone in the room.