Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins: Which Way Is East

Robert R. Calder

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins

Which Way Is East

Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2004-03-30
UK Release Date: 2004-04-05

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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