Jimmy Heath and DePaul students set off sparks

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Jimmy Heath

Jimmy Heath plays the Jazz Showcase with his brother, Albert "Tootie" Heath, in 2010. (May 17, 2013)

One hundred years ago (plus a few months) some visionary educators founded DePaul University's School of Music.

Fourteen years later, jazz musician Jimmy Heath was born.

To celebrate the school's centennial, Heath – now 86 and a certifiable jazz giant – appeared at the Jazz Showcase with the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble on Thursday night. Both parties epitomized the sound of youth.

Something remarkable happens, in other words, when a seasoned jazz musician collaborates with musicians young enough to be his grandkids: Everyone plays a little better, sharper and more buoyantly than they might have otherwise.

Certainly that was the case from the moment Heath took the stage. Though the band had sounded strong in its first piece of the evening, Neal Hefti's "Apple Honey" – a tribute to the 100th birthday of Woody Herman, whose band recorded it – the playing moved up a notch in Heath's presence.

Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" poses plenty of technical and stylistic challenges, and Heath's arrangement complicated matters with its regal opening and dramatic, fiercely syncopated follow-up. But under Heath's direction, these students didn't simply handle the tune's twists and turns: They made music. Paying keen attention to Heath's expansive gestures as conductor, they shaped these phrases expressively.

Not to be outdone, Heath picked up his tenor saxophone and delivered blues-tinged lines of considerable urgency, the band punctuating his ideas with staccato blasts. Soloist and ensemble listened intently to one another – you could hear it in their give and take.

Heath penned "Sassy Samba" as an homage to Sarah Vaughan, but neither he nor the band tried to mimic the voluptuousness of her vocal manner (an impossible task anyway). Instead, Heath produced fluid, hard-core bebop phraseology on tenor saxophone, his lines at once intricate and fluid. The DePaul reeds acquitted themselves especially well here, the sweetness of their composite tone a striking contrast to the slightly acidic quality of Heath's.

In some ways, the most complex piece of the set was also its subtlest: Heath's "Ellington's Stray Horn," his tip of the hat to the greatest composing partnership in jazz (even if Ellington benefited far more than Strayhorn, at least as far as fame and fortune were concerned). DePaul professor Bob Lark, who directs the school's jazz studies program, took on the conducting duties here, helping intertwine Heath's soprano saxophone statements with a plush orchestral accompaniment. Here soloist and ensemble produced their most profound music-making of the set, the performance emotionally understated and melodically serene.

So it went in this evening, each Heath composition tapping a different world of sound. There was no glib sentimentality in Heath's jazz waltz "Gemini," thanks to a brisk tempo, astringent orchestral harmonies and the wide-open solo lines of Heath's tenor solo. Once again, Heath inspired the young musicians to stretch, the players giving him the sharp accents and dramatic crescendos and decrescendos he asked for.

And in Heath's "Gingerbread Boy," a technically demanding, rhythmically tricky tune became something of a romp, Heath offering practically everyone in the band a chance to solo – sometimes two at a time.

For all of Heath's gifts as reedist, composer and conductor, however, it's worth remembering who prepared these young musicians for the privilege of playing with him: professor Lark. That Lark was willing to yield the spotlight to Heath for most of the performance and trust his students to handle themselves accordingly said a great deal about his confidence in this enterprise. It was well placed.

Jimmy Heath and the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble
When
: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20-$30; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

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