The final album that jazz saxophone master Jimmy Heath recorded before his death earlier this year has just been released by Verve Records.
Love Letter was completed just a month before Heath’s death on Jan. 19, 2020, making it a “parting masterpiece” to conclude his incredible 76-year career. It’s his only albums of all ballads, combining original material with interpretations of works by Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham.
Love Letter was recorded in New York and Atlanta with a cast of colleagues and friends that includes pianist Kenny Barron, guitarist Russell Malone, vibraphonist Monte Croft, bassist David Wong and drummer Lewis Nash. The album also features guest appearances by star vocalists Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant as well as revered trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The record was co-produced by Carol Friedman and Grammy winner Brian Bacchus.
“This is the record Jimmy never got to make,” Friedman said. “Asking him if he wanted to do an all-ballads album was preceded by decades of us talking about singers and love songs.”
While Heath was known as a saxophonist, it was his talent as a composer and arranger, especially for large ensembles, that really established his jazz legacy.
Love Letter features three of Heath’s original compositions. Fashion or Passion is from a 2004 Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra commission. Inside Your Heart is the second movement of The Endless Search, his 2010 recording with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. Ballad from Upper Neighbors Suite is a rework of a tune he first recorded in 1995.
Heath was a recipient of the 2003 NEA Jazz Masters Award. He died of natural causes at the age of 93 on the morning of Jan. 19, 2020, in Loganville, Ga., surrounded by family.