billyhiggins

Andrew Hill ‘Dance With Death’

Pianist Andrew Hill’s ‘Dance With Death’ is one of THE BEST sessions made for Blue Note in the late 1960s. Sadly, it sat on the shelf for quite a while as tastes and marketing teams had shifted their focus towards more commercial and soul-jazz outings, and ‘Dance With Death’ is pretty far from both. ‘Dance With Death’ is an inventive, inside/outside, post-bop affair that’s pretty much guaranteed to capture and retain your undivided attention. “Fish n Rice” is a boogaloo-on-LSD dance number for people with two left feet. “Love Nocturne” is the kind of ballad you’d definitely NOT bring home to mom. The title track is a mid-tempo noir soundtrack to an unsolvable mystery—the mystery to me being how the drummer manages to tread the air above the din, locking into a modified 4/4 while his bandmates are working with complex fractions. Hill’s compositions are adventurous, and he’s got a top-flight band to realize his vision: Charles Tolliver-trumpet, Joe Farrell-tenor/soprano sax, Victor Sproles-bass, & Billy Higgins-drums. Joe Farrell and Charles Tolliver are a particularly well-matched brass pair, sounding positively HUGE when going into lockstep. Tolliver, in particular, solos with confidence and agility. His chops are on display, but he never crosses the line into overplaying. Hill’s run at Blue Note from 63-70 is rather fantastic, with a dozen-plus sessions/albums that are all worth hearing and most worth owning. I’d put this one, ‘Passing Ships,’ and ‘Pax’ at the top of my list of Andrew Hill requests/suggestions for the team @donwas @jazzsaraswati

Hank Mobley ‘A Slice of the Top’

‘A Slice of the Top’ showcases Hank Mobley at the peak of his powers. It was the session that Mobley has said he was most proud of, and he pulled no punches in expressing his frustration that it sat unreleased—along with a half dozen of his other sessions—in Blue Note’s vaults for over a decade. With clever arrangements by the amazing Duke Pearson, the octet of Hank Mobley-tenor sax, Lee Morgan-trumpet, McCoy Tyner-Piano, James Spaulding-flute/alto sax, Kiane Zawadi-euphonium, Howard Johnson-tuba, Bob Cranshaw-bass & Billy Higgins-drums created one of Mobley’s GREATEST albums. It’s got a bigger sound due to the expanded lineup, the material is on the more adventurous side for Mobley, though he never strays from his trademark melodic excellence. Originally recorded 18 March 1966, it first saw the light of day as part of Blue Note’s LT Classics series in 1979 (cheap and plentiful in second-hand shops, with covers that look either like cheap packages of magnolia seeds, or the work of a first-day intern at Windham Hill), and then Blue Note’s Connoisseur series (this copy) in the mid-90s with a bit more sonic heft, mastered by Wally Trautgott. This session is collected along with the rest of Mobley’s 60s output (including all of his shelved sessions) as part of Mosaic’s ‘Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions 1963-70’ CD box, which from a sound quality perspective beats all the vinyl issues I’ve heard from these later 60s sessions. ‘A Slice of the Top’ is an often overlooked title in Mobley’s largely stellar catalog, which is a shame as it’s a superb record that I’d categorize as “must hear” material. Fortunately, it is available across the digital spectrum, and second-hand copies of the vinyl are fairly easy to come by h/t @gs_va12 for the suggestion!

Eastern Rebellion

‘Eastern Rebellion’ is an extraordinary, modal/advanced hard bop session from 1975 when it wasn’t particularly fashionable to make records like this. The five long-ish tunes are expertly played by the quartet of George Coleman (tenor sax), Cedar Walton (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). This mix on this record is FANTASTIC—there’s a power in this session that the recording engineers captured perfectly, and it leaps from the speakers like the grooves in the vinyl remain charged with energy. Cedar Walton is the de facto leader of the group, kicking things off with his infectious original “Bolivia”—that bassline is quite an earworm, and Sam Jones is mixed nice n’ loud. Walton also kills it on “Mode for Joe,” which he wrote for Joe Henderson. The quartet’s take on “Naima” is TERRIFIC, and a highlight of the record. George Coleman also turns in a superb performance throughout, and the overall chemistry of the quartet results in a killer album that does not AT ALL sound like a child of the 1970s. ‘Eastern Rebellion’ was the first record to be released on the Dutch label Timeless (SJP 101), and it was also issued in the US on the Muse label (TI 306). It’s widely available across the digital spectrum too! This record doesn’t get talked about enough, and at a time when I see an influx of DMs with requests for records that are a bit off the beaten path, this seems like a good choice for a spin

Grant Green ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’

Recorded 21 Dec 1962, ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’ was the last of the “theme” records Green would explore that year. Having previously gone west and then south of the border in previous sessions, Green recruited pianist Herbie Hancock and the ace rhythm duo of bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins to take us all to church. The material is a collection of familiar spirituals like “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, transmogrified into modern, soulful hard bop. The approach here ranges from reflective to celebratory, with the blues running deeply throughout. The interplay between Green and Hancock is marvelous, and while the tempos never really swing hard, the intensity is palpable. This is 1979 Japanese King pressing GXK 8117, stereo, a reissue of BST 84132. Preach

Donald Byrd ‘Free Form’

A tale of two sides, with Byrd mostly in the composer’s chair across both. Side A is classic Byrd in hard bop mode, leading a quartet that includes his mentee Herbie Hancock on piano and a young Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. Butch Warren (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums) anchor the proceedings which begins with ‘Pentacostal Feelin’, gospel-influenced rug-cutter, then moves into a mellower groove with the lovely “Night Flower”, followed by the groovy mid-tempo “Nai Nai” which features a KILLER Wayne Shorter solo. Side B is where things get even more interesting as some of the hard bop goes sideways, modal playing becomes a thing and the resulting swing is just EXPLOSIVE. “French Spice” manages to pique your curiosity and rouse your libido at the same time. It’s definitely about foreplay and/or should be played during. Then there’s the title track which gets caught in several post bop riptides, manages to break free momentarily, only to get pulled out even further. It’s pretty freakin’ great. The song really takes its time to develop, morph, evolve and explore the edges. Wildly enjoyable. Byrd made a lot of strong-to-great records in the 50s/60s, all of which have some facet to recommend but for me this one stands a cut or two above the others. Highly recommended. Recorded on this day 11 Dec, 1961 but held for release until 1966. This is one of the few original first pressings in my collection—BLP 4118, mono

Bobby Hutcherson ‘Stick up’

Tight! Marvelous post bop/hard bop set from leader Bobby Hutcherson who leads a razor sharp ensemble across five originals and a take on Ornette Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita”. Stylistically this one takes a more straightforward approach than say ‘Components’ or ‘Dialogue’. The band: Bobby Hutcherson-vibes, Joe Henderson-tenor sax, McCoy Tyner-piano, Herbie Lewis-bass, Billy Higgins-drums. The MVP: Billy Higgins, who leans into the groove with gusto, putting more emphasis on swing rather than intricacy. On tracks like “8/4” his deft touch doesn’t require heavy-handedness to keep the groove locked, and that light touch makes it effortless for him to drop into tricky, interlocking unison lines with the rest of the band and before banking right back to swingtown. Masterful. That highwire act is followed by the languid “Summer Nights” which floats with a serenity that’s atmospheric and almost fragile—I find myself holding my breath for fear of disturbing the mood. Don’t let a sense of complacency set in however as “Black Circle” dives into some adventurous spaces without ever going fully “out” or bringing a sense of abrasiveness to the sonic palette. You’d never know from listening to this gem that this was Hutch and Tyner’s first studio session together—they’re as simpatico as peanut butter & jam. Jam being the operative word here, as Tyner’s long-running partnership with Henderson allows for buttery smooth handoffs between them and Hutch. This is a terrific session, originally recorded 14 July 1966 and released in April 1968

Lee Morgan ‘The Procrastinator’

Seductive. If it’s not in your library, it should be. Tied with ’Search For the New Land’ as my favorite Lee Morgan album, this session has star power galore: Lee Morgan (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). Carter, Hancock & Shorter were recording ’Nefertiti’ with @milesdavis when Morgan “borrowed” them for this session, so the freebop sensibility of the Second Great Quintet blends seamlessly with Morgan’s advanced hard bop proclivities. Add a generous dose of Hutcherson’s shimmering, percussive vibes and the result is an immersive atmosphere that draws you in from the opening notes of the title track to the final notes of “Soft Touch”. In between, you’ll find a variety of excellence, from the verbosity of “Start Stop” (that Morgan solo is 🔥🔥🔥) to the album highlight “Dear Sir”, a ballad that quests with the spirit of the Second Great Quintet. This album has a long, convoluted history which I’ve detailed in the comments, but for the time being digital ubiquity is at hand, so head over to your favorite streaming platform and immerse yourself in one of Lee Morgan’s finest records. This is a tremendous session @icalledhimmorgan @herbiehancock @wayne.shorter @roncarterbass @musicmattersjazz

Jack Wilson ‘Easterly Winds’

Joining the chorus of folks acknowledging Lee Morgan’s birthday today, I thought I’d call out this under-discussed session featuring Morgan in a sideman role. ‘Easterly Winds’ from pianist Jack Wilson is one of those “under the radar” Blue Note gems deserving a spot on your playlist, if not a space on your shelf. Wilson is a melodic, energetic pianist who fronts a killer sextet that includes Lee Morgan (trumpet), Jackie McLean (alto sax), Garnett Brown (trombone), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums). The record opens with the boogaloo dance floor romp “Do It”, a rug-cutter (though not of the cherubic hue @walteragross) to get the blood pumping and feet tapping. Good tune. An even more interesting Wilson original follows entitled “On Children” which has fine solos from Brown and Morgan, and then the “A” side closes with the Johnny Mandel standard “A Time for Love”. The “B” side features two more Wilson originals and then closes with Frank Strozier’s “Frank’s Tune” which features McLean’s best solo, Morgan’s most thoughtful solo, and is my favorite track on the LP. Good stuff. Recorded 22 Sept 1967, released March 1968 as BST 84270. Widely available digitally, and not too difficult to find on vinyl