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Shop Talk: Billy Higgins

Billy Higgins

Few drummers possess a more distinctive sound signature than Billy Higgins. A true virtuoso of rhythm, texture and tone, he is among the most joyous, swinging drummers in the history of American music-and he’s a consummate team player. Coming of age in the late ’50s, Higgins cemented his reputation for musicality and versatility through a series of classic recordings with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan.

Subsequently, through a handful of recording dates that showcased him as a leader-most notably Soweto (Red) and Billy Higgins Quintet and Mr. Billy Higgins (Evidence)-Higgins further refined his shimmering cymbal pulse, dancing snare accents and wily bass drum syncopations into a sweetly textured wash of sound, and an indomitable groove so deep and pliant it seemed, on the surface, to be the essence of simplicity itself. But take a deeper look at his tumultuous polyrhythmic interplay with Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman on “Civilization Day” from Coleman’s The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (Columbia/Legacy) or his elegant, gospelesque chants alongside Charles Lloyd on “Heaven” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” from the tenor saxophonist’s most recent ECM release, The Water Is Wide, and you’ll see that while there isn’t much smoke, there is plenty of fire-a controlled burn by a master orchestrator who understands how to create a captivating musical atmosphere, beginning with the sound of his favored ride cymbals.

“I switch up between a K. Constantinople and an old Paiste 602 Medium Ride,” says Higgins. “That old Paiste was given to me by Ed Blackwell, so it has a special thing going for it besides its sound. There’s a vibe to it, and I’ve made a lot of very good recordings using that particular cymbal.”

JazzTimes: Do you always favor rivets in a ride cymbal?

Well, yeah, because it gives everybody a cushion. I remember working with Milt Jackson, and sometime if a cat didn’t have a sizzle cymbal, he wouldn’t hire him [laughter]. Because you’re always playing it, it gives a lot to the player and the ensemble, too-it’s like the maître d’ of the drums set. You might never touch a tom-tom, but that cymbal is a big part of your sound.

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