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June 2004

Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins
Which Way Is East
ECM Records

The greatest artists, it seems, never stop surprising us, even after they're gone. So it is with the late Billy Higgins. In January 2001-just four months before his death-the great postbop drummer got together with his friend Charles Lloyd at the tenor saxophonist's Montecito, Calif., home and recorded a series of solos and duos. The resultant two-CD set, Which Way Is East, casts both men in unfamiliar roles. Lloyd plays a great deal of alto, something he hasn't done much of since the '60s. Higgins not only plays drums, he also sings and plays guitar as well as various non-Western string and percussion instruments.

I find myself actually preferring Lloyd's alto. On cuts like "Chomolungma," Lloyd evinces a limpid sound on the smaller horn that lends his Trane-ish lines a more tuneful air. The slight reticence that characterizes his tenor work seems more appropriate to the alto. Lloyd also plays flute and piano on a few cuts. His flute is raw and expressive, his piano diffident but not unattractive.

Higgins' exacting yet flexible drumming style complements Lloyd's extremely loose rhythmic manner well, but it's his playing of the many ethnic instruments that makes this record particularly memorable. Higgins always had a melodic streak on drums, and it's allowed broader expression on instruments like the Syrian one-string, on which his slurred and legato melodies sound a bit like Ornette Coleman's on violin (with a dash of Dewey Redman's tenor). He also proves himself an able hand drummer and acoustic guitarist; the guitar serves mostly as accompaniment to his modest yet affecting, folkish vocals on tunes like "Oh, Karim," and "Ya, Karim."

In duo, Lloyd and Higgins play together beautifully and naturally. We're lucky Higgins finally chose to share this side of his musical personality. Perhaps it's his going-away present to us, in which case we owe him one.

Originally published in June 2004
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