Artist's Choice: Nasheet Waits on Billy Higgins
Today’s top jazz performers pick 10 favorite tracks by the players, singers and styles that helped define them.
I had the distinct pleasure of being in the presence of Billy Higgins all throughout my development as a musician and man. He was always very encouraging to me, a young drummer in awe of his stature. He had one of the most generous spirits I’ve ever encountered. He was gentle and kind, but you didn’t mistake his kindness for weakness. He possessed a fire that permeated his physical presence and penetrated all those who were fortunate enough to be in his midst. His passion for life and music has been documented extensively for us to benefit from. He possessed a certain kind of subtlety and sophistication that is rarely found. These are just a few of the recordings that are most important to me—someone touched by Billy’s spirit.
“Melody for Melonae”
Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note, 1962)
I’ve listened to this album time and time again. The interplay on this is spectacular. Billy and Jackie share a special bond that undoubtedly transcended this plane. Billy’s multilayered conversation between snare and bass drum is in full view throughout this one. The cohesion between all members of the band denotes a high level of control and freedom. The display of Billy’s trademark cymbal work is in full view. He provides such an empathetic cushion for Jackie and pianist Walter Davis Jr. to sink into or leap off of.
Mr. Billy Higgins (Riza, 1984)
A beautiful recording in which Higgins is the leader. When I listen to Gary Bias’ “Morning Awakening” it gives me the same feeling I get when I hear Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” I remember hearing this a lot when I was a teen.
“Three Bags Full”
Takin’ Off (Blue Note, 1962)
This is just flat-out one of my favorite records. Dexter, Freddie Hubbard and Hancock take incredible solos. The soloists give a great example of folks “getting to their shit quick.” Billy plays one of the most slippery, in-between-type rhythms on this selection. How he swings the band is inspirational. He gives a clinic on tension and release. This is particularly evident during Hancock’s solo and the introduction and recapitulation of the melody. He never seems to get in the way, yet always propels the music and infuses it with the just the right amount of energy.
“Alias Buster Henry”
Glass Bead Games (Strata-East, 1973)
This Higgins original starts out with a drum solo where the taut sound of his snare drum is predominant. He segues into a half-swing, half-calypso rhythm. I love the way that he always seemed to find that just-right, in-between rhythm to use. He never plays contrived beats; they always sound organic. You see him utilizing different cymbals to accentuate different passages in the music. He takes an expressive solo where he builds from the bottom to the top and displays uncanny independence. There is always a sense of theme and development throughout. The rhythm section is rounded out with Stanley Cowell on piano and Bill Lee on bass.
“Body and Soul”
Jimmy Heath Picture of Heath (Xanadu, 1975)
Higgins teams up with Sam Jones and Barry Harris in the rhythm section. Billy demonstrates his usual tact and restraint. This is a song where we get to enjoy his brushwork. From the beginning of the song he engages us with double time. It gives the melody a push. The momentum is carried throughout the entire tune.
Summit Meeting (Roulette, 1960)
This signifies some of the early permutations of the classic John Coltrane Quartet before Coltrane settled on Elvin and Jimmy Garrison. You hear how Billy lets the melody dictate the rhythm he imparts. That parable “less is more” always comes to mind when I hear Billy. The economy he uses adds to his potency. McCoy Tyner and bassist Steve Davis join Billy in the rhythm section.
The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964)
This is one of the great boogaloo or soul-jazz recordings of all time. The loose feeling that Billy plays on this is classic; it’s “make you want to dance” material. This is one of the many examples of Billy’s ability to let the music breathe and not get in the way.
Jackie McLean Quartet
Dr. Jackle (SteepleChase, 1966)
This has to be one of the most intense recordings I can recall Billy participating in. Although the recording quality isn’t the greatest and the piano is in desperate need of a tuning, the energy generated by the band supersedes all obstacles. Jackie and Billy demonstrate an almost telepathic synergy on this track and throughout the album. Also features Lamont Johnson on piano and Scotty Holt on bass.
The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959)
This recording turned the jazz world on its proverbial ear. The way Higgins colors and shapes melodies and improvisations is impeccable. That double-timing ride cymbal on “Lonely Woman” sets the stage for one of the most haunting and beautiful melodies. The way Billy and Charlie Haden lay that carpet down for Ornette and Don Cherry to levitate on is magical. You see Billy accentuate the shape of the melody by using different sound sources, the primary source being the ride cymbal that during the bridge disintegrates into a phrase on the floor tom and then back to the cymbal for the last A section.
Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins
Which Way Is East (ECM, 2004)
I believe this was Billy Higgins’ last recording, cut four months before he crossed over. This double-CD really highlights Higgins’ versatility. He plays drums, guitar, guimbri, various percussion and sings—in Portuguese, no less! On this track he plays guitar and sings beautifully. Higgins was always aware of the spiritual aspects of music and life; for him they were and are intertwined. His spirit shines through radiantly on this recording.