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Ned Otter: Powder Keg

There are few surprises on this stellar straightahead outing by tenor saxophonist and George Coleman protege Ned Otter, just a strong commitment to swinging and playing through the changes with confidence and aplomb. That task is made easier by the presence of a regal rhythm section consisting of veterans Harold Mabern on piano, Dennis Irwin on bass and the late Billy Higgins on drums (in one of his final recording dates).

While Otter doesn’t play with the blowtorch intensity of his mentor Coleman, he does possess a big, robust tone and can skillfully navigate his way through a myriad of changes with fluidity and verve even at blazing tempos, as on the exciting title track, one of Wayne Shorter’s lesser-known gems. And he has a particularly nice way with ballads, blowing with lush tones and a soulful, unhurried quality that belies his age, as he demonstrates so beautifully on Johnny Richards’ “A Gentle Breeze” and Nat Cole’s “I Get Sentimental Over Nothing.”

Trumpeter Tom Kirkpatrick adds some fuel to the fire on “Powder Keg” while providing plenty of snap to Otter’s crackle and Higgins’ pop on Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine” and Otter’s jaunty original “Been There Before.” As always, Irwin is Mr. Reliable, the unerring timekeeper, and Higgins is a marvel throughout, elevating the proceedings with his inimitable bounce, brisk touch on the snare, insistently sizzling ride cymbal work and boundless hipness and warmth. Check out Higgins’ dancing quality on a swinging rendition of “Tenderly,” his surging pulse and dazzling solo on “Powder Keg,” his deft take on a 3/4 groove on Otter’s “Black Sunday” and his relaxed, refined swing feel on “Jeannine.” Hearing the sheer brilliance of his playing on this session, it’s hard to imagine the man was so sick that he was near the end of his life.

All fans of Higgins, and connoisseurs of the art of swinging, are encouraged to pick up this disc and get introduced to a noteworthy new saxophonist.

Originally Published