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Published: 2004/04/27
by Pat Buzby

Which Way Is East – Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins

ECM 1878/9

Billy Higgins came on the scene in the late '50s

as the drummer in Ornette Coleman's quartet, and moved

on after a few years to become one of the most

ubiquitous of mainstream players. Charles Lloyd

became famous as one of the first saxophonists to take

jazz to a hippie rock audience in the late '60s,

retreated into obscurity for the next two decades, and

finally regained something close to his old level of

prominence and critical esteem in the late '90s. In

that last phase, Lloyd and Higgins formed a firm

alliance; I had the privilege of seeing Higgins's

smile and sagacity as he backed Lloyd at Chicago's

Jazz Showcase in 1999.

Which Way is East is a unique document. Higgins,

battling health troubles and a few months away from

death, is captured with Lloyd in two discs of intimate

recordings. About half of this set consists of

sax/drum duos, and listening to this is a testament to

how much two instrumentalists can say to each other

without words. There are echoes of Coltrane, Ornette,

Parker and the like in Lloyd's playing, and nods to

the bebop and New Orleans masters in Higgins' work,

and yet it's thoroughly contemporary at the same time.

Listen to how Lloyd shifts course each time Higgins

finds the precise right moment to vary his settled,

unobtrusive swing patterns, and you'll know how

sometimes improvisation captures something that

composition never could.

The two players also duet on ethnic instruments, and

Lloyd has a few solo cuts on piano, displaying ideas

similar to his onetime accompanist Keith Jarrett,

although Lloyd's technique is much humbler. We also

get rare glimpses of Higgins on stringed instruments,

guitar, and voice. Although unpolished, these cuts

are an unnerving glimpse at a musical seeker's most

intimate side.

ECM is known for its tendency to indulge its artists,

but this is definitely one case that deserves special

treatment. Which Way is East is one of those discs

that you might pull out when it's time for a reminder

of how deep music can go.

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