By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Listening to Which Way Is East is a strange experience. Uncomfortable, even. Here are two jazz all-timers, Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins. They’re making the deepest music. But not for us. Not for anyone, really, except each other. And maybe for One Other that they serve.
It’s like reading somebody’s love letters — these two CDs’ worth of duo performances weren’t originally intended for distribution. If we become their audience, though, we can realize that all art is in some way public. We feel the ripples, even if we never saw the pebble dropped.
When this music happened, at Lloyd’s Montecito home in January 2001, Higgins was sick. He would die a few months later at age 64 of pneumonia, a final accumulation of the ailments traceable to the hepatitis he contracted while young, which necessitated a 1996 liver transplant. The operation could not restore him to full health, as he became diabetic and suffered from increasing weakness and pain.
You wouldn’t know it from the way Higgins plays on Which Way, of course, just as you wouldn’t have known it if you’d seen his performances of immediately preceding years.
“Once Billy got on the drum seat, there was a transformation. You could see it,” says Dorothy Darr, Lloyd’s mate and artistic partner, as well as the documenter of this unprecedented meeting. You hear a lot about musicians being filled by the spirit, but you rarely witness the actual process. Though Higgins was known as “smiling Billy,” he didn’t smile all the time, especially when he was hurting. In those last years, the smile came mainly when he focused on musical communion. Bent and slow-moving, he grew straight when he touched the drums — seemed almost to glow.
Fantasy? Judge for yourself when Home, Darr’s just-completed film version of Which Way Is East, comes around. Having previously directed the 1996 Lloyd chronicle Memphis Is in Egypt, she’s gotten used to documenting the important events of Lloyd’s life, collecting thousands of hours of video footage. Most of the Lloyd photographs you see were taken by her. When there’s a new album in process, the two of them hash out the details of mixing and sequencing together — she says she and Lloyd deflect potential contention by playing casually serious pingpong while they talk it over. She’s involved in everything.
So it was natural that when Higgins was invited to stay and jam for several days, Darr would throw up some recording equipment: two stationary cameras, which frequently ran out of tape because she wasn’t available to tend them, and a couple of microphones plugged into an old analog 2-track recorder.
And nothing else was needed. Some musicians require months in the studio to make a statement; others just seem to breathe, and it’s there.
One mood dominates the recordings: joy. The word play can ring trivial when applied to what serious musicians do, but here it’s appropriate. Lloyd and Higgins take full advantage to tumble over each other in the ultrafree sax-drums format — Lloyd sounding on tenor something like a more buoyant Coltrane, and on alto a little like a more spiritual Ornette Coleman.
Those instruments are only the foundation: Both players pry into every corner of their multiple virtuosities, with some really vivid combinations resulting. Higgins gets inside your chest with the thick string overtones of his North African guimbri while Lloyd’s tenor dances around his partner’s un-Western scales, and they come to mind-stretching agreements somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. On a low-pitched hand drum, Higgins sets up a way-down, resonant groove — dense enough to float a barge, and especially sensual in support of Lloyd’s Tibetan oboe and cave-dark bass flute. And showing sensitive discipline when Higgins knocks into a slapping snake-dance rhythm, Lloyd lays out simple sustains on taragato(like a wooden soprano sax) that turn the improvisation into a long, strong cobra. They’re a village of two.
Each also goes it alone. Here’s where Higgins will really surprise you: He shows elevated intensity or casual flair on a number of stringed instruments while singing like a globetrotting troubadour, improvising words and even inventing plausible syllables to go along with the Brazilian and Arabic melodies that pour from his throat. When it’s time for some blues, the tradition is no museum installation to him — it lives as a spontaneous language.
Sprinkled throughout are Lloyd’s solo piano meditations, which serve as snapshots of the torn and changeable state of mind in which he finds himself. A title affixed to one of them tells the whole story in brief: “Through Fields and Underground,” where you hear first morning dew, then plain mourning. Flipping quickly from beauty to dissonance to black depression, these selections rank with the most personal thoughts Lloyd has ever let us hear, which is saying something. As thrilled as he was by the golden time he was spending with his friend, he clearly knew it might be the last. The disc’s booklet mines some penetrating dialogue between the two. Lloyd: “Do you mean to tell me that you’re going to get up off the bed and come back to work on this with me?” Higgins: “I didn’t say I would be there, but I will always be with you.” Lloyd’s performances shortly after Higgins’ death bore this out: You could actually hear drums that were not on the stage.