There has always been an inherent spiritual element in Charles Lloyd's work, but nowhere as overt as on Which Way is East
, a series of duets recorded with drummer and, as it turns out, multi-instrumentalist Billy Higgins, who passed away only four months after these sessions were recorded. In the liner notes Higgins is quoted as saying, "Everybody got to go sometime. But it's a drag if I have to come back and do this all over again. I don't want that to happen! I want to pass the test and say, 'Oh thank you,' and go on." On the evidence contained in this two-disk, two-and-a-half hour collection of intimate meetings of mind and spirit, it is clear that Higgins has, indeed, passed the test.
Travelling the diasporas and beyond, Lloyd and Higgins explore everything from the African folk roots of modern jazz to its most outer regions of modern improvisation. Lloyd, heard on everything from saxophones to flutes to piano and percussion, also ties in his Native American roots. "Sally Sunflower Whitecloud" is a pastoral duet of bass flute and percussion that conjures images of peaceful plains. "My Lord, My Lord" combines Tibetan oboe, a one-string Syrian instrument and Higgins' voice in a chant that links the Middle East with the Orient. "Windy Mountain" is along the more expected lines of modern jazz, a tenor sax/drums duet that demonstrates the remarkable communication between Lloyd and Higgins that permeates the entire set. "Through Fields and Underground" is a folk-like piano solo with a hint of free blues. And these four seemingly disparate tracks, grouped into a suite called "Devotion," represent but one of eight suites that make up this engrossing release.
Higgins plays guitar and sings the Brazilian-tinged "Mi Corazon." The real revelation of Which Way is East is, in fact, how remarkably broad Higgins really was. The master drummer, who graced albums by virtually every important jazz artist of the past fifty years, was immersed in folk music from around the world, and it is only appropriate that one of his last recordings should represent his cultural diversity in its entirety.
Still, some of the most captivating moments come when the two stick with the instruments that they know best. "Civilization" and "Supreme Love Dance," both saxophone/drum duets where Lloyd is heard on the alto, an instrument he usually eschews in favour of the tenor, are simply amazing in the way the two seem to be completely in each others' pockets. Leading and following, this is collective improvisation of the highest order, and the kind of interplay that works best the fewer number of participants. Higgins did marvellous work with Lloyd on earlier ECM releases, but this recording ups the ante.
While Higgins' passing, at the relatively youthful age of sixty-five, was tragic, we should feel fortunate that Lloyd had the foresight to bring him to his home in January of 2001, for this series of impromptu, intimate and ultimately revealing duets.
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Personnel: Charles Lloyd (tenor and alto saxophones, bass, alto and C flutes, piano, taragato, Tibetan oboe, percussion, maracas, voice), Billy Higgins (drums, guitar, guimbri, Syrian ?one string,? Senegalese, Guinean and Indian hand drums, Juno?s Wood box, percussion, voice)