“Love Letter”, the final album of one of the greatest saxophonists and composers in jazz, Jimmy Heath, was finished shortly before he passed away in January of this year. It features three original compositions in addition to five songs from Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday & Mal Waldron, Gordon Parks, and Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.
The magic of this album is its elegant balladry, its magnificent prowess, deftly condensed mood, and slick production values. Jimmy’s warm and tender soprano and tenor playing is aided and abetted by top comrades Russell Malone (guitar), Kenny Barron (piano), Herb Wong (bass), and Lewis Nash (drums). Listen to the sax/vibes magic on “Inside Your Heart” where Jimmy and vibraphonist Monte Croft create such a sultry atmosphere that is almost heartbreaking. The all-ballad set is a masterpiece in creative, moody, very controlled and deliberate playing.
Two singers are featured on the album here. The almighty Gregory Porter finesses the beautiful ballad “Don’t Misunderstand” with a heavy dose of class and restraint, but enough power to convey the message. His ability to stretch single syllables underline the fact why he is one of the best singers around at the moment. Céline McLorin Salvant, on the other hand, caresses the Mal Waldron/Billie Holiday brooding ballad “Left Alone”, full of despair and gloom, both shining in higher registers as well as with her tender vibrato. I think both Gregory and Céline have put so much energy and creativity into this session, probably propelled by the masterclass surroundings altogether.
Dizzy’s “Con Alma” comes along in a newly arranged, breezily swinging fashion with Monte and Russell both complementing Jimmy’s playing superbly. His immensely lyrical solo on this particular cut as well as on the other cuts of the album simply speaks volumes in soul, experience, elegance. The album opener, his own composition “Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite”, also adds yet another piece of art which might become a future classic, like so many of his classy tunes such as “Gingerbread Boy” or “For Minors Only”. I have never heard such a tender and moving interpretation of “Don’t Explain”, the album closer. Pure fascination. Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha”, a tune first featured on the 1963 Joe Henderson Blue Note LP “Page One”, features another modest, conservative playing by Wynton Marsalis, adding yet another strong facet to this, Jimmy Heath’s most sincere legacy. And the good thing is, “Love Letter” is available on vinyl, too. It sounds amazing.