Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Billy Higgins: Why He's Important

Billy Higgins (drums; b.1936 - d. 2001)

The greatest and most recorded jazz drummer of all time. High praise yes but if you actually knew how many albums on which Billy Higgins plays, you would understand (and also probably be a very rich person). Billy Higgins played in R&B when he was young, coming to prominence once he joined bassist/pianist, Red Mitchell's group. This led him to apply his versatility in both complex and delicate recording sessions and live gigs. Billy Higgins had become the "artist of choice"--recording and performing with such musicians as Lee Morgan, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and most recently with Charles Lloyd.

His style was rhythmically understated but always precise. Billy Higgins could literally do-no-wrong when behind the kit. As a result of Billy's "in demand-ness" (at least 100 sessions as sideman) his own discography is very thin. But thinness doesn't mean lack of quality. Of the ten albums attributed to him as leader only about four are still available--just barely. I don't own all his albums but he is one of the first artists I look forward when I'm in a used record store. His recordings are beauty and each provide a small bit a variety to making them very distinct from each other. Again the understated quality combination with superb musicianship.

I would recommend The Billy Higgins Quintet (Evidence, 1997) as one of the album you should definitely seek out. Quintet includes a wonderful lineup featuring Oscar Brashear (trumpet), Harold Land (sax), David Williams (bass) and his most consistent collaborator Cedar Walton (piano), all in absolutely sublime form for this outing. Higgins was never really an original composer; his own releases contained standards and material written by his fellow musicians. But that shouldn't stop you from taking a good listen to this fabulous recording. Cedar Walton and Harold Land are legends and are really cookin' on this session as evident on the opener, "Step Right Up To The Bottom," and " The Vision" both written by Land and Walton, respectively. They almost overshadow the proceedings until you listen closely and realize who really is leading the session--Higgins. It's an awesome recording that would be worth the money to pay for.

In the last few years of his life he had recorded with saxophonist Charles Llyod, most significantly on Llyod's 2004 album Which Way Is East (ECM). Which Way Is East is phenomenal and features an array of instruments played by both musicians on this duo session. Higgins even plays guitar on a couple of tracks. This album may be only for the true jazz fan but I highly recommend it as an example of what both artists can do at the top of their game. The album was recorded just a few months before Higgins passed away.

Billy Higgins was an indelible figure and his influence will be felt for years to come. Check some of your albums you may even have Higgins in your collection and don't even know it. The word "legend" gets used allot (even by me) but in Billy Higgins case it is beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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