Amongst the most remarkable recordings in Charles Lloyd’s discography, “Which Way Is East” documents a week spent playing duets with his old friend Billy Higgins. The improvisations on this expansive double album bring both players to new musical terrain while also acknowledging the deep roots of ‘free’ playing The inspirational level is exceptionally high as the music explores and generates powerful emotions, but the overriding spirit of the work is unmistakably celebratory - even though both men were aware that they were unlikely to do this again. Billy Higgins, who had been battling ill-health with great stoicism and good humour for years, died four months after the session.
Higgins, it was universally agreed amongst musicians, made everybody sound better. There was a quality in his playing that focussed a soloist’s thought, and helped give shape to expression. During the recording of Which Way Is East Charles Lloyd told Billy Higgins “There’s a feeling when you play that I can’t describe – but there is no feeling like it in the world.” Similar sentiments will have accounted for Higgins’ enormous recorded legacy: few jazz drummers can have appeared on as many discs or in such elevated company. Billy Higgins played with many of the master musicians and innovators of jazz – Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Paul Bley, Lee Morgan, Steve Lacy, Dexter Gordon and dozens more – revealing an uncanny adaptability and flexibility while always sounding unmistakably like himself, with his joyous dancing beat and speeding, shimmering cymbalism.
Higgins’ affinity, as a drummer, for Charles Lloyd’s musical universe has been persuasively demonstrated on three previous ECM discs: Voice In The Night (recorded 1998) and The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins (both 1999). Speaking of the Hyperion disc, Don Heckman in the LA Times described the Lloyd/Higgins teamwork as “one of jazz’s magical associations…the sort of symbiotic musical connection that happens too rarely” and added, “it’s fortunate that ECM has preserved such a fine example of this wondrously engaging partnership.”
On Which Way Is East, however, Billy Higgins grasped the opportunity to document a side of his musical personality that had hitherto been almost secret. Without Lloyd’s encouragement, he noted at the time, it might well have remained that way. (“I’d been thinking about doin’ it but you have to have a rendezvous and a vehicle.” ) Billy Higgins’ insights as a drummer stemmed partly from his feeling for melody. Everywhere he played, he took a guitar with him, and off the bandstand and in hotel rooms would feel his way into the music from fresh perspectives. On his travels around the world, admirers would give him instruments; he learned to play many of these – some ‘properly’, some idiosyncratically. This extracurricular activity was something Higgins took very seriously, it was research work, “so that when something happens in the music, I instinctively go somewhere with sound by understanding the harmonic structure” (interview with Karen Bennett).
Born and raised in urban L.A. (where they had met, introduced by Don Cherry, way back in the 1950s), Higgins had also long talked about playing ‘in nature’ with Lloyd, intrigued by tales of flute soliloquies and long tones in the Big Sur woods. In January 2001, Higgins finally brought all of his instruments out to the Lloyd home near Santa Barbara … and the results, unobtrusively monitored by co-producer Dorothy Darr on old analogue equipment, do indeed have a ‘field recording’ charm and authenticity. “That’s two guys sittin’ on top of the mountain,” Higgins would enthuse, “a whole suite right there.”
On Which Way Is East Higgins is, at last, heard on guitar, and on the North African guimbri as well as on a range of international hand drums. And, encouraged by Lloyd, he sings. He sings the blues, sings in Arabic, sings in Portuguese…
Lloyd, for his part, was experimenting with so-called ethnic music (he would probably agree with Higgins’s old employer Ornette Coleman that “all music is ethnic music”) and unorthodox instrumentation at least as early as 1967’s Journey Within and there are moments on Which Way Is East that recall that forward-looking adventure: the great difference of course is one of accumulated experience and deeper knowledge. In addition to his saxophones, Lloyd is featured on flutes, taragato, Tibetan oboe, percussion – and piano, on which he reveals a thoroughly original touch. Amongst the disc’s great revelations are Lloyd’s forays on alto saxophone, an instrument he has seldom played in public since his days as musical director of Chico Hamilton’s band. He assigns the smaller horn a voice entirely different to his characteristically nuanced, tender, breathy tenor sound. His alto is fast moving, jabbing, angular…Inspired by the wide-open, sensitive free drumming of Higgins, Lloyd has total liberty to take his sound anywhere, and does. (Higgins was also astonished by the Lloyd alto, calling it Charles’s “secret weapon”…)
Beyond its purely musical attributes, Which Way Is East is also timely as a kind of multi-faith document. Billy Higgins was, from 1977 onward, a most dedicated follower of Islam, while Lloyd has for years been a student of Vedanta. “We’re singing songs of the spirit”, Billy Higgins said in 2001, and of course there are any number of ways to inflect such songs.
Now, three years later, Charles Lloyd is undertaking selected solo concerts to pay tribute to Billy Higgins. The first of these takes place at the Cully Jazz Festival in Switzerland in March 2004. Alongside Lloyd’s solo performances, the film “Home” will be shown, Dorothy Darr’s documentation of the making of Which Way Is East. Tribute concerts will also follow in the US, the first three taking place, Darr notes, “at locations where the promoters were farsighted enough to book the duo in 1997” - San Francisco, Seattle, and Healdsburg, California. Each of these concerts will combine performance, a photo exhibition, and a screening of the documentary.