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The Al "Tootie" Heath Trio, which consisted of pianist Emmet Cohen, bassist Russell Hall, and Heath on drums, performed for a full house at Kenan Auditorium, June 10, 2022, on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Wilmington. It was a joyous and special occasion because Wilmington is the birthplace of Heath's father, Percy Heath, Sr. Tootie had previously performed in Wilmington as a member of Heath Brothers in 1984, with his brothers, the late bassist Percy Heath, Jr., and the late reedman/composer Jimmy Heath. But this night was the drummer and his trio's time to shine. Without a doubt, they did just that!
The trio started the set with an exciting interpretation of "Django," a composition written by the late pianist John Lewis, who was a long-time member of The Modern Jazz Quartet. Cohen displayed serious chops, and Hall provided a fine bowed solo on bass that the audience loudly applauded after he finished. Heath, who is 87 years old (he said so after this tune), held it all together with tempo and timing that betrayed his age. Heath said that both of his band members were in their 30s and that they were very gifted musicians who made him play the drums like he was as young as they were. His playing was remarkable, because years ago Tootie suffered a heart attack and stroke – he performed as if those illnesses had never happened.
Throughout the concert, the crowd seemed to be in awe, and they showed their sincere appreciation by giving the group loud and sustained approval. The trio also did a superb job on slow pieces like "Embraceable You," "Round Midnight," and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." The tunes were all smooth, sophisticated readings of standards and were perfect selections to slow down the pace. An appropriate respite in a mostly high energy concert, these tunes left the audience in a peaceful mood.
The highlight of the evening was the last song, the trio's performance of "Off Minor," a Thelonious Monk composition that featured solid playing and solos from pianist Cohen, and a firm, steady foundation from bassist Hall. But it was Tootie's extended solo on the drums that resonated throughout the auditorium. During it, he was smiling and looking like a kid in a candy store. One would have thought that he had forgotten how old he was and that it was his time to shine, which indeed, Heath did that night. When he finished, he was helped up from behind the drum set by Cohen and Hall. The two bandmates led him to the center of the stage where the trio bowed to a standing ovation. What an evening! No doubt, Heath's father, mother, and his brothers would have been proud of their "baby son" and "baby brother." Wilmington looks forward to him coming back again real soon!