Which Way Is East

Drummer Billy Higgins rode his cymbal onto the national scene as part of the Ornette Coleman posse that hijacked the hard-bopping ’50s and heralded the free jazz ’60s. Between his auspicious arrival and his death in 2001, he established himself as a sort of omnipresent utility man, playing in aggregations as woolly as David Murray’s big band and as mainstream as Dexter Gordon’s combo; giving a lift to all of them, he radiated a joy that suggested he could toss away his sticks and rattle the trap set with his smile alone. Yet after umpzillion sessions — one Web tribute claims he was the most-recorded jazz drummer ever — it’s a surprise to hear a posthumous release that has … well … surprises.

The record starts with Higgins playing a wooden slit drum, Charles Lloyd piping along on flute, bells and shakers tinkling, both of them making vocal whoops and incantations. Cut 2 has Higgins playing something called the guimbri, apparently a two-string violin-like instrument behind Lloyd’s dirge-like alto sax lines. On cut 3 Lloyd’s alto takes flight over the kind of pulsing trap-set percussion Higgins is known for; in this sparse setting, though, Higgins’ rhythms flow so fluidly that they become melodies by other means. Cut 4 concludes a sort of opening suite with Lloyd moving over to the piano, letting worshipful chords hang in the air with the occasional run of notes between.

And on it goes, with eight of these loosely organized suites over two CDs.

These old friends go back to the time in the 1950s when Higgins was largely unknown and Lloyd already a rising star; they played together most often in Higgins’ final years when he became Lloyd’s drummer of choice. And they play here with an easy familiarity, striking a mood somewhere between a séance (is that the smell of incense?) and a couple of musical kids-at-heart pulling toys out of the box. In addition to tenor and flute (his main axes) and piano and alto, Lloyd plays bass flute, taragato and Tibetan oboe. Higgins pulls out his rarely heard guitar to accompany himself as he sings charming blues and sambas; he plays the various hand drums, but always circles back to the crisp trapsmanship that served him (and the jazz world) on all those sessions.

From Note 1, there’s an element of the devotional here from the avowed Buddhist Lloyd and Muslim Higgins. But to paraphrase Charlie Parker on the question of faith, these are assuredly two devout musicians as well.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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