Dave Heath is a leading British composer. He is particularly noted for providing solo display pieces for leading instrumental stars, with striking ability to integrate the sound and much of the spirit of jazz in through-composed classical compositions.
Heath studied flute and made it his major instrument during his studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. His teachers were William Bennett and Edward Beckett. While studying there, he began to play professionally in modern jazz groups at the age of 17.
In 1978, a fellow flute student at the Guildhall, Richard Blake, asked him to compose a short piece that would make him "sound and feel" as if he were playing jazz. The result was Heath's first important composition, Out of the Cool, a six-minute work that has been widely played, not only by Blake but, in Heath's transcriptions of it, by violinist Nigel Kennedy, saxophonist John Harle, and many others. The works Rumania (1979) (for violin and piano) and Coltrane (1981) (for flute, soprano sax or clarinet, and piano) are in the same style. They use the phrasings, melodic patterns, and chord progressions that are associated with modern jazz, particularly Heath's main influences, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Fight the Lion (1982) paid tribute to the piano and sax collaborations of Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and is dedicated to boxer Muhammad Ali.
The beginnings of a stylistic shift can, however, be seen in Recall (1981), a solo flute piece he wrote for his teacher William Bennett. In addition to translating some of Coltrane's harmonic tremolo techniques to the flute, Heath also included an overblowing technique originated by Jethro Tull.
In 1984, when Caroline Lavelle asked him for a cello work, Heath composed Shiraz, for cello and saxophone (or saxophone and piano), in which Heath's interest in rock becomes stronger. His first full orchestra piece, Rise from the Dark (1985), continued this interest. Its rhythms are based on rock, but its harmonies are more varied than his prior jazz-based chord progressions. Now they take on the enriched tonal vocabulary of late-Romantic music and the Impressionists, though rock rhythms and some avant-garde techniques are included to create a new texture. The next major Heath composition, Beyond the Dark for flute and harp (1985), returned to jazz harmonies (but now reflecting the funk-tinged music of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea) blended with a world music influence from the Japanese shakuhachi and koto.
Meanwhile, Heath continued to work as a performing musician, appearing with orchestras and with major soloists such as Sting, Michael Kamen, and Dominic Miller. He came into more demand as an author of solo works, and has written concertos and concerted works for James Galway, Nigel Kennedy, Julian Lloyd Webber, and Evelyn Glennie. The work for Galway is a flute concerto called Free the Spirit (1992), which the flutist premiered with the Philharmonic, Leonard Slatkin conducting.
One of Heath's most controversial pieces is the concerto for Nigel Kennedy (who now bills himself simply as "Kennedy"). This is Alone at the Frontier, written to be premiered with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1993. Contrary to Heath's original practice (the violinist must improvise his entire part, which is unwritten. But the controversial part aspect of the piece was its use of a rap choir. Critics complained; the audiences, however, gave it a standing ovation.
Heath has also composed for percussionist Evelyn Glennie, beginning with African Sunrise/Manhattan Rave (1993) and has worked with her on a complete album.
Heath has frequently appeared on television, and some of his works have been choreographed by the Sadler's Wells Theater.