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Eddie Higgins: Portrait in Black and White

Since the late 1950s, Higgins has made his mark with those who listen to music apart from considerations of sociology and commerce. His third CD for the little Sunnyside label is one of the most impressive piano trio albums in recent memory.

Higgins is less a stylist than a brilliant generalist who ranges through the history of the music, selecting, winnowing and refining. He has long since melded his touch, voicings, relaxation, inventiveness and natural swing into an approach that draws from all eras of jazz piano without being tied to any of them. Rather than blandness, his eclecticism brings to his improvisations focus, definition and purpose.

There is a flow, rather like that of a suite, through much of this collection of pieces from the classical and popular repertories. Moving from Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebeslied” to Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” to the Siciliano in G-minor by Bach, Higgins almost makes it seem that the composers collaborated. His ease and familiarity with the jazz tradition lead to him to allusions to or direct quotes from sources as varied as Charlie Barnet (“Charleston Alley”), Benny Goodman (“Let’s Dance”), Denzil Best (“Move”), Dizzy Gillespie (“Groovin’ High”) and Artie Shaw (“Moon Ray”).

While all of that, and considerably more, is going on, bassist Don Wilner and drummer James Martin work hand in glove with Higgins to make this a fully integrated trio. Martin is effective in his placement of accents, particularly with brushes on cymbals. Wilner is an astonishing bass player whether bowing, walking, interacting with Higgins or covering the instrument from top to bottom in his pizzicato solos. His purity of tone and breadth of technique may come from his classical background. They are matched by a time feeling achieved only by musicians with a bone-deep jazz sensibility.

In its frenzy to package youth and inexperience, the music business does little to market the generation of jazz players whose careers began in the 1950s. There is insufficient space here for an essay on the industry’s shortsightedness. Suffice it to emphasize that discerning listeners will be rewarded if they seek out Eddie Higgins.

Originally Published