Anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the Heath Brothers Quartet live or via recording has been rewarded by their ability to always be tasteful swingers. Now take someone who actively participated in this ensemble’s sound, as pianist Jeb Patton did starting in the late 1990s, and you have someone whose musical DNA is ingrained with total reverence from the lessons learned from these three masters.
Patton’s education is evident on his new release, New Strides, (MaxJazz). Joined by bassist David Wong and drummer Pete Van Nostrand, Patton presents 10 songs where his piano leads through taste and tempo, not just technique. Patton’s rhythm mates show respect for their leader, and the leader himself also includes his bosses, drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath, on three songs, and saxophonist Jimmy Heath on one song. The late bassist Percy Heath is also acknowledged, as Patton includes his two-word commandment, "Stride On," inside the CD’s package.
The bright, high-energy feel that makes New Strides so solid begins with "Billy." Patton’s right hand reveals an affinity for higher-note exploration when he solos, and Wong and Van Nostrand’s accompaniment matches Patton’s energy and ideas, especially with Van Nostrand’s snare drum and ride cymbal. The drummer’s brush work on "My Ideal" shows great artistry as well, and added to the mix are congas during Patton’s first solo. The trio handles this song’s melody with such grace and precision that the Ray Brown trio, the one featuring Benny Green and Jeff Hamilton, come to mind here. After Wong’s solo, an in-the-moment moment occurs, as a sneaky second of silence happens before Patton reclaims his lead role.
Patton’s most impassioned playing occurs on "Sir Roland," his original composition dedicated to another master he personally learned from, Sir Roland Hanna. As "Tootie" Health pushes with a Blakey-esque ride cymbal and snare combination, Patton pays homage through meaning, not just blazing speed or finger-busting runs, and he also allows his partners room to stretch as well. Patton and "Tootie" later connect at their natural best on Jimmy Heath’s "Cloak and Dagger." Here, Heath’s brush-on-snare treatment during the song’s opening melody is most attractive and provides a good launching point for Patton’s solo. This song also benefits from Heath’s energy-filled exchanges with Patton and Wong.
Patton’s other original composition, "Street Song," features him, Wong and "Tootie" at their most sublime. Following a brief overture, Patton takes a "No Fear" solo while being propelled by Wong and Heath. After "Tootie’s" solo, he and Patton end this song with a bang, a musical exclamation point!
"Last Night When We Were Young" is very distinctive, as it is the only track to feature Jimmy Heath. This delicately-handled duet finds Patton exploring the piano’s middle register, while providing a second, underlying voice to Heath’s soprano saxophone. Another appearance by Jimmy Heath would have been cool, especially on "Dream Dancing," the up-tempo closer, but this is, after all, the student’s turn to show what the masters helped develop.