“We got to keep workin’ on this music.” Four months before his death, drum shaman Billy Higgins spoke those words to Charles Lloyd. The two were in the midst of some of their final conversations, both verbal and musical. Higgins had been in and out of hospitals, battling liver failure, and he and Lloyd knew their time together was short. So they hunkered down in Montecito, California in January of 2001 to play. The resulting two-disc package, Which Way Is East, is an extended farewell hug between two soulmates. It is also Higgins’ parting message to the world.
Over the course of two discs, Lloyd and Higgins play seventeen duos. Lloyd plays six solo numbers, Higgins seven. Although known as a tenor man and flutist, Lloyd chooses to mark this occasion primarily on alto sax, on which he has seldom performed since the early ‘60s. He also plays piano, flutes, percussion, tenor sax and assorted woodwinds. Higgins plays not only drum set, but also wood box, hand drums, and multiple stringed instruments, including guitar. He sings, too. Not just sings—he cries out to his maker, in Arabic, Portuguese and English. On “Oh, Karim,” “Ya, Karim” and “My Lord, My Lord,” his guttural chants could lead one to believe the man was born in Tangiers. But just a few tracks later, on “Blues Tinge,” his guitar and vocals are pure Mississippi front porch. Here, Higgins reveals a side of himself—the straight-ahead jazz drummer as multi-instrumentalist, singer and even songwriter—that very few had known about.
Which Way Is East is divided into eight suites (four suites per disc), each consisting of anywhere from three to five movements. When Lloyd and Higgins go toe to toe on alto sax and traps, the result is unadulterated free jazz. Lloyd’s horn speaks in the tongues of Bird, Ornette and even Dolphy. His four solo piano pieces bring to mind his frequent label mate Paul Bley. His flutes (alto on “Akhi,” bass on “Sally Sunflower Whitecloud”) conjure a wondrous, California-woods solitude. His taragato and Tibetan oboe speak of a worldly spirituality that is right in line with Higgins’. (Lloyd is a student of Vedanta, Higgins was a convert to Islam.) But Lloyd also brings it all back to the blues, in the spirit of Sonny and Trane, on “Windy Mountain.”
Lloyd is slated to give a series of unaccompanied concerts during the course of this year. Who can doubt that when he does, he will be hearing the sounds of Higgins? “I didn’t say I would be there, but I will always be with you,” Higgins tells Lloyd in the moving tête-à-tête that serves as this album’s liner notes. “You talkin’ ‘bout the journey’s end—the journey’s just beginning.”