Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins: Which Way Is East

[17 June 2004]

By Robert R. Calder


This two-CD set hasn’t lacked publicity. Like Brubeck and Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd was once a name. Albums like Forest Flower and Dream Weaver were trendy in the 1960s, and slated by the ilk of the prominent critic Frank Kofsky’s headline “Charles Lloyd is a Fake”. Lloyd’s publicity portfolio calls this an intervention by the “jazz police”, as if Kofsky hadn’t been making fair comment. Lloyd might just have been kidding himself at the time for all I knew. I, too, never liked that music Kofsky attacked, and it matters not whether it was sincere.

Lloyd may have taken a false turning, and he did quit at the height of that perilous popularity. The late Michel Petrucciani helped unearth him. He was ill and I don’t know what, and as far as this review goes I’m paying no more heed to Lloyd’s story of past fame.

He comes from Memphis. With Harold Mabern and George Coleman he’d a wide range of local musical experience, with blues singers (apparently Howlin’ Wolf), and in a jazz context where Phineas Newborn (himself a suspect figure with a piano technique big as Oscar Peterson’s, and a famous devoted fan in Count Basie). In California he met the magnificent percussionist Billy Higgins, both in their teens. It was pretty well the 21st Century before they recorded together, whether formally or as here.

Lloyd had a decent formal (college, etc.) education. Before his perilous popularity with a Jarrett/McBee/deJohnette rhythm team he’d succeeded Eric Dolphy as reedman/flautist/musical director of the Chico Hamilton group and then worked with Cannonball Adderley (in a job once Yusef Lateef’s).

Up to the end of the Adderley job he gave grounds for serious checking whether there’s anything to his current reappearance. In fact, on this by no means mainstream-looking set of performances recorded in hifi in Lloyd’s home, in duet with Higgins or solo, or sitting out while Higgins played other instruments and/or sang, the continuity with Lloyd’s much earlier career isn’t obscure.

Suggestions that Lloyd is John Coltrane’s successor are subjectivist nonsense, based on no deeper ken of either man’s work. Lloyd’s himself and has his own interests. Accused once of standing on Coltrane’s musical and metaphysical shoulders, cheapening and popularising, he’s guilty of none of that here. There’s strong Coltrane impression, and why wouldn’t two jazz musicians born a dozen years have independently overlapping interests? Here Lloyd essays far more overt connections with jazz tradition than the speculative Coltrane ever needed to, who has been dead nearly forty years and predeceased Hawkins, Ellington, Henry Allen, Louis Armstrong! Only some jazz was ever always at the cutting edge of innovation, and some of that on the verge of loss of identity. Like his near contemporaries Fred Anderson and the late Bill Perkins, Lloyd in echoing anything post-Coltrane cleaves to tradition.

These two CDs are like published extracts from the notebooks and/or correspondence of book authors. They are also a little like the after-hours research and pioneering which went on sixty-odd years back between the founders of a new harmonic idiom (Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams) and indeed 75 years back when Higgins’s sometime boss Coleman Hawkins played piano as Jack Teagarden and the tragically short-lived Jimmy Harrison devised the trombone’s future as a solo jazz instrument. Here the research is rather into foundations.

Billy Higgins, who took part in a lot more publicly experimental jazz in the ‘60s, liked, it seems, to experiment on his own with a guitar in his hotel rooms when touring. The reference is useful: on the five items on which he sings with guitar he can’t quite get out of playing guitar to himself.

I’m not sure what languages from farther east than Portuguese or English Higgins sings in. The booklet should have annotated more. It prints only a transcript of apparently a last conversation between the rhetorically articulate Lloyd and Higgins on his deathbed. The plan’s probably to allow or encourage listeners to note implied and other musical and spiritual relationships between various poetic or religious ideas and music(s). This is all done by performing things issued as worth hearing. Many swing. Other than when Higgins gets a little muted inside his guitar, everything’s a direct statement with a view to being heard: open conversation not notation of technicalities or addresses to the navel.

The first group of improvisations is entitled What is Man and opens with “The Forest” for Lloyd’s flute and a variety of vocalisations. Higgins plays “Juno’s Wood Box” and sounds somewhere between thumb-piano and small xylophone. It’s immensely suggestive, scholarly fun. I take it that Lloyd selected the thirty performances from the two men’s says of play-around in the studio, and grouped them in blocs of three or four and named the blocs—and named at least his own improvisations. The man is not a charlatan for being a thorough pro and performer.

He’s a serious alto saxophonist; hear the next two items, first with Higgins playing a stringed instrument, then drums. Lloyd plays something akin to a Bartok miniature on piano, well-named “Sea of Tranquility”, before a second bloc of three on average four-minute-long improvisations on alto. They’re not shapeless, and any tendency in that or a rambling direction has Higgins’s drumming to lend formal direction, restraint as well as propulsion. Lloyd’s beautiful sound on alto is nothing after Ornette Coleman, or biting. It could be listed with the softer-bodied sounds of Bobby Watson, Lee Konitz, Gary Bartz, say. At one stage he makes it sound nearer one of the Eastern horns he also plays, but he returns to the horn’s own harmonious timbre: nothing ugly.

The stringed instrument just mentioned is the guimbri, which Higgins can pluck or bow, and which he plays to his own singing opening the third bloc with “Oh, Karim”. He sounds pretty good, like a hypothetical (North?) African cousin of John Lee Hooker, 1948 vintage, where the coarsely amplified crude electric guitar sounds more primitive than any guimbri. A Europeanising has tamed down blues harmonies for far too long. I’m not sure I ever heard any African music quite so convincingly a cousin of blues while being definitely not blues. Some of the rhythms are decidedly boppish. Between that first vocal and the second (“Ya, Karim”) Lloyd begins an improvisation on alto flute, sounding like the alto saxophone to which he resorts half way through—apparently needing the other things it can do. It’s actually clear where the flute’s capacities run out and the other horn is needed. This is about music rather than the mechanics of any mere bit of brass. Lloyd’s lyric—rather than dramatic—bop style puts me in mind of the tenorist Wardell Gray. Well, the late English critic Peter Clayton idolised Gray and described his music as “mystical”.

The bloc’s closer, Tibetan oboe over hand drums and handbells, develops into a rhythmic pattern interestingly like Ellington’s “La Plus Belle Africaine”.

Alto over drums opens the fourth bloc; “Hanuman’s Dance” is a 13-minute improvisation with sounds and licks of a kind I remember in Sonny Stitt and James Moody. I’m out of space before I’ve mentioned Lloyd’s use of tenor on the second CD, or the strange combinations of affinity and influence on his piano solos. I’ve not even reached “Blues Tinge” at the end of CD1, where Higgins sings the blues over his understated guitar. On CD2 his “Take a Chance” (vocal, guitar) is a rough draft of a song somebody could complete and sing. Lloyd plays Tibetan oboe as well as saxophones and taragato, with Higgins accompanying on all but one title, whether on drums or others of his set of gear. He gives Higgins the last notes and words, which go into introvert bossa nova with guitar. The differences between this set and various others not long out by contemporary musicians include two important ones. Lloyd projects, he performs. This may have been a private series of dialogues and unplanned, but the musical language is one of communication. This is also embedded in the second difference, summed up in the sweeping words of Lloyd at the beginning of the transcribed conversation: This is a deep tradition we come from, Mr. Higgins.’

It is, too.

Published at: