In 1997, after two successive liver transplants, Billy Higgins brought his joyful smile and liberating rhythms back to jazz. By May 2001, he was gone. Four months earlier, he’d made his final recordings—Which Way Is East‘s duets with saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
Personal relationships often best demarcate jazz history. This two-disc, two-hour-plus encounter builds on a half-century bond, expanding the open-minded legacy both musicians helped shape. And it holds surprises, like Higgins singing blues in English and Spanish while strumming guitar, and in Arabic while playing “Syrian One-String.”
Arranged into eight suites, each of distinct mood, the music works as a deftly edited montage: intimate scenes from the twilight of a man’s life. As Disc One opens, Lloyd plays long flute tones. Higgins pounds playful patterns on a wooden slit drum. Then Higgins picks up an African guimbri, and Lloyd an alto sax. Ribbons of melody appear. Before long, a trap-and-sax duet bears the sparkling energy of free jazz’s heyday and creates a resilient, tuneful weave. Some meditative moments evoke Lloyd’s Vedanta devotion; calls to Allah hint at Higgins’s Muslim faith. There are echoes of Buddhist sunrise ceremonies and after-hours jams. A final track finds Higgins singing wordlessly and strumming guitar, no doubt grinning that grin again.