Without Lloyd’s encouragement, he noted at the time, it might well have remained that way. (“I’d been thinking about doin’ it but you have to have a rendezvous and a vehicle.”) Billy Higgins’ insights as a drummer stemmed partly from his feeling for melody. Everywhere he played, he took a guitar with him, and off the bandstand and in hotel rooms would feel his way into the music from fresh perspectives. On his travels around the world, admirers would give him instruments; he learned to play many of these – some ‘properly’, some idiosyncratically. This extracurricular activity was something Higgins took very seriously, it was research work, “so that when something happens in the music, I instinctively go somewhere with sound by understanding the harmonic structure” (interview with Karen Bennett).
Born and raised in urban L.A. (where they had met, introduced by Don Cherry, way back in the 1950s), Higgins had also long talked about playing ‘in nature’ with Lloyd, intrigued by tales of flute soliloquies and long tones in the Big Sur woods. In January 2001, Higgins finally brought all of his instruments out to the Lloyd home near Santa Barbara … and the results, unobtrusively monitored by co-producer Dorothy Darr on old analogue equipment, do indeed have a ‘field recording’ charm and authenticity. “That’s two guys sittin’ on top of the mountain,” Higgins would enthuse, “a whole suite right there.”
On “Which Way Is East” Higgins is, at last, heard on guitar, and on the North African guimbri as well as on a range of international hand drums. And, encouraged by Lloyd, he sings. He sings the blues, sings in Arabic, sings in Portuguese…
Lloyd, for his part, was experimenting with so-called ethnic music (he would probably agree with Higgins’s old employer Ornette Coleman that “all music is ethnic music”) and unorthodox instrumentation at least as early as 1967’s “Journey Within” and there are moments on “Which Way Is East” that recall that forward-looking adventure: the great difference of course is one of accumulated experience and deeper knowledge. In addition to his saxophones, Lloyd is featured on flutes, taragato, Tibetan oboe, percussion – and piano, on which he reveals a thoroughly original touch. Amongst the disc’s great revelations are Lloyd’s forays on alto saxophone, an instrument he has seldom played in public since his days as musical director of Chico Hamilton’s band. He assigns the smaller horn a voice entirely different to his characteristically nuanced, tender, breathy tenor sound. His alto is fast moving, jabbing, angular…Inspired by the wide-open, sensitive free drumming of Higgins, Lloyd has total liberty to take his sound anywhere, and does. (Higgins was also astonished by the Lloyd alto, calling it Charles’s “secret weapon”…)
Beyond its purely musical attributes, “Which Way Is East” is also timely as a kind of multi-faith document. Billy Higgins was, from 1977 onward, a most dedicated follower of Islam, while Lloyd has for years been a student of Vedanta. “We’re singing songs of the spirit”, Billy Higgins said in 2001, and of course there are any number of ways to inflect such songs.
Now, three years later, Charles Lloyd is undertaking selected solo concerts to pay tribute to Billy Higgins. The first of these takes place at the Cully Jazz Festival in Switzerland in March 2004. Alongside Lloyd’s solo performances, the film “Home” will be shown, Dorothy Darr’s documentation of the making of “Which Way Is East”. Tribute concerts will also follow in the US, the first three taking place, Darr notes, “at locations where the promoters were farsighted enough to book the duo in 1997” – San Francisco, Seattle, and Healdsburg, California. Each of these concerts will combine performance, a photo exhibition, and a screening of the documentary.
Release Date: March 22, 2004