The emphasis in Higgins' fourth Sunnyside CD is on ballads, with a particularly—well—haunting treatment of the title song. Even in Haunted Heart, however, all is not slow and reflective. Two Rodgers and Hart gems, "My Funny Valentine" and "Isn't It
Romantic?," are what used to be called (and may still be called) rhythm ballads. There is, in fact, rhythmic thrust to all of the pieces. Higgins gives "Lover Come Back to Me" a Latin treatment. He waltzes at a moderate tempo through "How My Heart Sings." "Someone to Watch Over Me" begins with a chorus of out-of-tempo solo piano, but by the time bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Ben Riley join him, Higgins has entered the second chorus in a groove that complements Gershwin's blues-inflected harmonies. He ends the piece alone, with two phrases from "Rhapsody in Blue" as his coda.
Higgins weaves such allusions and quotes into the fabric of his improvisations without sounding like, in Miles Davis' deathless phrase, "a hip cornball." You have to admire a man who can quote "Work Song" in "My Funny Valentine" and make it sound logical. As everyone knows, puns are the highest form of wit. Higgins is a pianist of wit, among his many other admirable attributes. In a quote on the CD box, Riley puts him in a league with "Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and the other grand masters of modern jazz piano." It is easy to agree with that evaluation.