Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

January 12, 2023


Taking its initial inspiration from Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane this is a cross-generational album that has the potential to appeal to a broad jazz listenership.

Dave O’Higgins & Rob Luft


(Ubuntu Music UBU0126)

Dave O’Higgins – tenor saxophone, Rob Luft – guitar, Ross Stanley – piano, Misha Mullov-Abbado – bass, Rod Youngs – drums

“Pluto” is the second album from co-leaders Dave O’Higgins (tenor sax) and Rob Luft (guitar) and follows their acclaimed 2019 release “Play Monk & Trane”, which is reviewed here and provides the source for some of the following biographical detail;

The co-leaders are leading British jazz musicians from two different generations. The vastly experienced O’Higgins has been on the scene since the early 1990s, a prolific bandleader and sideman capable of playing in a broad variety of jazz styles.  Several albums featuring his playing, as both leader and sideman, have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.

The younger Luft is something of a ‘rising star’, a frequent award winner whose début album “Riser” (Edition Records, 2017) attracted a compelling amount of critical acclaim, and rightly so.  He followed this with the similarly lauded “Life is The Dancer” (also Edition) in 2020.

A former winner of the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize the guitarist has also been a BBC New Generations Jazz Artist. Besides leading his own band Luft is a much sought after sideman whose numerous collaborations span both genres and generations. Together with his life partner, vocalist and songwriter Elina Duni he has recorded for the ECM record label, the duo releasing the album “Lost Ships” in 2020, again to great critical acclaim.

My review of the “Riser” album can be read here;

And of “Life Is the Dancer” here;

With “Lost Ships” here;

O’Higgins and Luft first met while the guitarist was a member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) and O’Higgins was conducting workshops with the band. A rapport was established that eventually led to this current project.

O’Higgins describes the inspiration behind the pair’s first album thus;
“Rob called me for some ‘blowing’ gigs last year. It wasn’t difficult to find a common repertoire and a predilection for Monk and Trane tunes was apparent. The music we’ve chosen to play focusses on lesser known Monk compositions and some of the tunes Coltrane chose to record in the late 50s, rather than the usual few Monk tunes and the modal Coltrane so often heard”.

As a result not every piece was a tune written by Monk or Coltrane and the programme also included compositions by saxophonist Jackie McLean and pianist Tommy Flanagan plus a smattering of jazz standards, in addition to material from both Monk and Trane.

The line up on the first album was a quartet featuring O’Higgins, Luft and the American born drummer Rod Youngs, plus the Belfast based musician Scott Flanigan on organ, an instrument not normally associated with either Monk or Coltrane. This enabled O’Higgins and Luft to put a fresh spin on the music, an approach that delighted critics and audiences alike.

In 2019 O’Higgins and Luft undertook a forty date UK tour in support of the “Play Monk & Trane” album. The logistics of bringing Flanigan over from Northern Ireland were “unsustainable” and on the majority of the dates the organ was played by the great Ross Stanley.

Equally adept at the piano Stanley remains on board for this second album, specialising on piano as the group is expanded to a quintet with the addition of Misha Mullov-Abbado, a musician more or less of Luft’s generation, on bass.

Inevitably the sound of the group is different and there is also a greater focus on original material with seven original compositions from the pens of the co-leaders, plus one tune each from Monk & Trane as the links to the previous recording are maintained. The band’s sound is still rooted in the African-American jazz tradition with O’Higgins citing Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker as sources of inspiration, while Luft names Wes Montgomery and Bill Frisell.

The album was recorded ‘live in the studio’ on a single afternoon in January 2022 and deploys no overdubs, with the co-leaders also handling engineering and production duties.

The album begins with O’Higgins’ title track, which commences with a ‘spiritual jazz’ style introductory section that plainly references the Coltrane element of the previous recording. There’s then a shift into something more agile and boppish with the robust tone of the composer’s tenor at the heart of the proceedings. It’s very much within the jazz tradition with O’Higgins taking the first solo, supported by the keening of Luft’s guitar and the propulsive rhythms of Mullov-Abbado and Youngs. Luft’s lithe guitar adds a more contemporary touch as he and Stanley take it turns to trade ideas with dynamic drummer Youngs. O’Higgins then returns as this largely vigorous and ear catching item bows out with a tenor sax fanfare.

Luft’s composition “South Wind” is more wistful and lyrical and elicits a gentler, but no less fluent approach from O’Higgins.  The saxophonist shares the solos with Stanley and Luft, both whom stretch out thoughtfully and expansively on a lengthy (seven and a quarter minutes), episodic piece that goes through many twists and turns. The soloists receive typically sympathetic support from Mullov-Abbado and Youngs, who negotiate the various phases of the piece with aplomb, with Youngs contributing some particularly exquisite cymbal work.

“Giant Steps GTI” represents the co-leaders’ homage to Coltrane as they interpret the famous theme with a combination of respect, affection and consummate skill. O’Higgins solos with fluency and authority, channelling the spirit of the master but still very much his own man. Luft also solos at length, demonstrating an impressive facility at the fretboard and also bringing a contemporary sensibility to the music. Stanley is next up with a dazzling piano solo that is jam packed with ideas. All the while the rhythm section keep things ticking over with an admirable crispness.

The title of “Gayetski”, Luft’s second contribution with the pen, suggests that the piece may be intended as a homage to the late, great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (1927-91). Gayetski was the family name of Stan’s paternal grandparents, later simplified to Getz when they emigrated from Ukraine to the US via the UK. The style of the music adds credence to this suggestion with a warm samba / bossa nova feel informing the piece. Luft’s unaccompanied guitar chording sets the scene and both he and O’Higgins solo with a relaxed fluency. Stanley also makes an elegant contribution at the piano.

O’Higgins takes up the compositional reins again for “Everything’s Under Control”, a sturdy hard bop flavoured swinger that epitomises what he does best. Luft is also in terrific form with a hugely inventive solo that again brings a modern twist to the swing and bop flavourings; “morphing Wes Montgomery with Bill Frisell” like the liner note says. The piece also features the first solo of the set from the excellent Mullov-Abbado, who is also a composer and bandleader in his own right.

“Vague Recollection” is another O’Higgins composition, an energetic ear worm of a tune that forms the framework for expansive solos from O’Higgins and Luft, plus something of a drum feature for the estimable Youngs, a vital component in the success of this quintet.

Monk’s “Four In One” is another nod to the initial twin inspirations behind the band and is treated with due reverence. The co-leaders tackle a typically complex and quirky Monk theme in unison, but with Luft providing additional embellishment that provides the platform for a subtly blues tinged guitar solo. He’s followed by O’Higgins on authoritative tenor and room is also found for excellent solos from Stanley and Mullov-Abbado.

Higgins demonstrates his skill as a composer of ballads with the appropriately titled “Ballad For Barry”, although it’s not made clear just who the dedicatee is. In any event it’s a lovely tune with O’Higgins also reminding us of his abilities as a ballad player. Luft’s guitar playing is positively luminous, translucent even, and Mullov-Abbado adds a delightfully melodic double bass solo.

The album concludes with O’Higgins’ “One For The Six”, which I take to be a dedication to the much loved 606 Jazz Club in Chelsea, London. It’s one of those original tunes that sounds naggingly familiar and which sounds as if it may have featured on a classic jazz album of yore. Youngs’ drums play a prominent role with a series of breaks within an engaging and swinging arrangement that also features extended solos from O’Higgins, Luft and Stanley. Finally there’s a stunning unison rendition of the complex, boppish theme.

“Pluto” picks up neatly where “Plays Monk & Trane” left off, still paying homage to the masters but in a way that brings more of the co-leader’s own musical personalities to the proceedings. A second volume of Monk & Trane tunes would inevitably have disappointed, so the decision to place a greater emphasis on original material is a wholly right one, with both O’Higgins and Luft rising to the challenge, while still remaining true to the original spirit of the project. Stanley, Mulov-Abbado and Youngs all make superlative contributions and the result is a cross-generational album that may not pull up any trees, but which has the potential to appeal to a broad jazz listenership.

The band has won much praise for its live performances and a quartet version of the group (without Stanley) can be seen at Jazz Café POSK in Hammersmith, London. on Saturday 21st January 2022. Full details here;

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