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.
Though the compact disc’s full-length performances are treasures, the film documentary Home adds a number of dimensions: Darr’s poetic visual imagination; the charged atmosphere; the tones of the two voices; Higgins’ ecstatic smile. It’s not only a historical work, and not only a work of art; it’s a three-way work of love, and an enormously generous invitation, extended for the simple reason that Lloyd believes in the music’s power to heal and unite. So this is not entertainment. It’s an opportunity that’s unique in the correct sense of the word — not sort of unusual, but one of a kind.
The friendship between Lloyd and Higgins had its gaps; the two had hardly seen each other in some 30 years when producer Milan Simich arranged a 1993 session for an album called Acoustic Masters I, packaging them alongside pianist Cedar Walton and bassist Buster Williams.
“It was clear during the recording that Charles and Billy had a very special and direct connection,” says Darr. They did some concerts together in 1994 and 1995. Then, in 1996, Higgins got the liver transplant — two on the same day, actually, since the first one was a lemon. Lloyd made Canto while Higgins was recovering, and dedicated it to his friend. They contributed to Mark Isham’s soundtrack for the 1997 Alan Rudolph film Afterglow, and played three duo concerts that year, after which Higgins drummed on three successive Lloyd albums for ECM — Voice in the Night, The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins. In a career that has spanned half a century, Lloyd has created nothing more focused and inspiring than these.
But Higgins’ health was slipping; he told Lloyd he was “running on spirit.” He’d been in and out of hospitals when he finally accepted Lloyd’s long-standing invitation to come up. In January 2001, the meeting came to pass. A few weeks later, Higgins was told he needed another liver transplant. That didn’t happen. A benefit for his medical expenses was held in Oakland on March 20. He went into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (rather than the facility at UCLA, where he was a Jazz Studies Program faculty member) in March and April. He got pneumonia and was admitted to Inglewood’s Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. He died there on May 3, 2001.
For Higgins, jazz was not only an expression, but an option and a ray of hope for youth. He talked it, and, as a teacher and an example among the people of his South Los Angeles community, he walked it. That’s one reason why, when you hear his sound, you feel something.
Along with drummer Eric Harland and tabla master Zakir Hussain, Charles Lloyd will play concerts dedicated to Billy Higgins’ memory in the cities where they conducted their last duo concerts together: at the Palace of Fine Arts during the San Francisco Jazz Festival, April 3; at Seattle’s Town Hall, April 4; and at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theater, May 23. He’ll also be at the jazz festival of Healdsburg, California, June 12. At each event there will be a screening of the documentary film Home and a photo display.
CHARLES LLOYD & BILLY HIGGINS | Which Way Is East | (ECM)