Volume Two of the "Water Is Wide" sessions is also, sadly, one of the last recordings of the great drummer Billy Higgins, who died in May, after a long history of health problems. Higgins and saxophonist Charles Lloyd were friends from teenage years and had a band in Los Angeles in the 1950s whose line-up, at different times, included Don Cherry, Scott La Faro and Bobby Hutcherson, before any of these trailblazers-in-bud had "a name". As Higgins reminisced, in one of his last interviews (with Josef Woodard in Down Beat), "We played a lot, then. We were just kids growing up, trying to learn how to play this music." One of the pleasures of the work for Lloyd, in the last several years, had been the reunion with Higgins. Over the years, Higgins and Lloyd had occasionally played concerts and kept in touch, and Lloyd had dedicated his 1996 recording "Canto" to the drummer. However, the musical relationship intensified with the recording of the critically-acclaimed "Voice In The Night" in 1998 whose buoyancy was in large part attributable to Higgins' joyous beats. Over the next three years Higgins would be a crucial component of Lloyd's line-ups.
"We'd played together since I was 18," Lloyd said, praising the drummer as "a spiritual Master who elevated his instrument to that level where he could hear 'in the moment' and play whatever the music was at that time." That quality had of course been acknowledged by the great jazz masters of the last half-century, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Dexter Gordon and many others whose music has been driven by Higgins' pulses. As Lloyd put it in an interview once, "Having Mr Higgins behind you makes you jump up and shout, makes you think you can walk on water, makes you want to testify. Billy's got all the moves that you can't see, and of all the drummers, he's the most minimalist. His kit is never overly huge; his bravura is never over the top; he can do it all with the smallest gesture. He makes you sharpen your focus." His acuity and quick-wittedness is evident throughout "Hyperion with Higgins", a recording on which the drummer's contribution is as central as it was on Ornette Coleman's breakthrough albums such as "Change of the Century", or "Free Jazz". Higgins once compared the two bandleaders and concluded that Lloyd and Coleman, saxophonists who effected some sea changes in the history of jazz, were "totally different people looking for the same thing, still looking for that bullseye."
"Hyperion With Higgins" and "The Water Is Wide" were recorded over a week in a Los Angeles studio, partly out of a sentimental desire on Lloyd's part to return the music to its geographical point of origin, and partly for practical reasons; Lloyd wanted Higgins, for instance, to have access to his own drum kit, and the itinerary of Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier was so crowded that the recording was finally scheduled around their residency at L.A.'s Largo club.
The band assembled for these special recordings comprised three-fifths of the "Voice In The Night" band and two-thirds of Mehldau's trio, a mix of young lions and old lions with some self-evident connections to Lloyd's past. Abercrombie (featured much more prominently on this new release) has taken over a role analogous to that held by Gabor Szabo in Lloyd's 60s bands. And Mehldau is an obvious link in a chain of inspired pianists in Lloyd groups that has included such exceptional musicians as Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani and Bobo Stenson.
The dominant mood of "Hyperion with Higgins", however, differs from that of its predecessor. It's a more outgoing album. "The idea is like with the old Southern preacher," Lloyd told Down Beat. "You go low and you get high and then you catch fire. This second instalment picks up the tempo..."
Press reactions to "The Water Is Wide":
"One of his best. Beauty is the hymn book here, and the whole congregation sings together...The way Abercrombie's guitar gently introduces 'Prayer' then unites with Lloyd's tenor, then dances with it in simple harmony, is as perfect a metaphor for spiritual devotion as you can get. ... In place of the exuberant virtuosic free for all [of Lloyds 60s recordings] you now hear quiet consideration, a combination of austerity and sensuality, a feeling that the balance of the universe hangs in every note. These recent recordings will never sound dated."Greg Burk, Los Angeles Weekly
"Lloyd has returned to the limelight with ECM, refining a tender, blissed-out, small group sound whose roots are in the blues. The tracklist draws from different sources, Lloyd originals, standards, lesser-known Ellington/Strayhorn tunes, Celtic folk song, spirituals. They hang together beautifully; each is concise, suspended in the silence that always seems to surround an ECM session. The group dynamics are perfect: Mehldau's technique, sensitive and restrained, focuses on tone; Abercrombie's solos are blue and gleaming; Grenadier and Higgins shade and illuminate with the lightest touch. Lloyd leads with authority, his voice more rapturous than rhapsodical."Garry Booth, BBC Music Magazine
"On the title track, Lloyd's tone is like a welling-up from deep ground waters of being, sobs of sadness and joy. Abercrombie quietly scatters guitar, and all five players participate in something beyond time. This great music lives and breathes."Thomas Conrad, Stereophile (Recording of the Month)
"The return of Charles Lloyd has been a big bonus to contemporary jazz, not least because a growing homogeneity of approach in post-bop has made any player with a sound recognisable from a few notes worth his weight in gold. Though there is a little more swing in it, this set echoes the delicate reflectiveness of its predecessor, 'Voice In The Night', with Brad Mehldau on piano injecting a little more momentum into the approach. Terrific."John Fordham, The Guardian
"Lloyd's seventh album for ECM is a delightful example of his current approach. Playing is impeccable throughout, with Lloyd's lucid, highly expressive tenor supported by a fine band."Kenny Mathieson, Jazzwise
"The Water Is Wide" received the Swing Journal Gold Disc Award (Japan), and figured prominently on the best-of-the-year lists of numerous publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, from Entertainment Weekly to France's Jazzman. The appeal of "Hyperion with Higgins", a continuation of the story, is likely to be similarly broad-based.