Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Dave O’Higgins & Rob Luft

Play Monk & Trane

by Ian Mann

January 05, 2020


Despite the familiarity of much of the material Luft and O’Higgins deliver on their promise and very much make their own mark on it. The arrangements are fresh and imaginative and the playing superb.

Dave O’Higgins & Rob Luft

“Play Monk & Trane”

(Ubuntu Music – UBU0029)

Dave O’Higgins – tenor saxophone, Rob Luft – guitar, Scott Flanigan – organ, Rod Youngs - drums

A somewhat belated look at this acclaimed recording, originally released in October 2019 and an album that found its way on to many of my fellow critics’ ‘Best of Year’ lists.

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.

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.
A former winner of the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize the guitarist is currently 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.
My review of the “Riser” album can be read here;

The pair met while Luft 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 current collaboration 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 is a tune written by Monk or Coltrane and the programme includes 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 decision for the group to include the Belfast based organist Scott Flanigan places a different emphasis on the music, the Hammond (or Crumar, in this case) being an instrument rarely associated with either Monk or Coltrane. The quartet is completed by the talented and versatile American born drummer Rod Youngs, now a stalwart of the UK jazz scene.

Luft says of the project;
“I’ve always found that a great way of looking forward musically is actually to look back and study the grand masters of jazz. The songbooks of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane are two of the most significant in the jazz canon and this project is my first attempt at revising their music through my own musical filter. It’s really an honour to be working with Dave on this record as I’ve been a great fan of his playing ever since I first got into jazz”.

The guitarist illustrates his point on the opening number as he puts Coltrane’s “Naima” through that ‘musical filter’, using modern musical technology to create a multi-tracked ‘guitarscape’ that serves the beauty of the melody well. In this intimate duo performance he is joined by O’Higgins’ disarmingly beautiful tenor with the saxophonist declaring; “I wanted to create a texture reminiscent of Claus Ogerman and Michael Brecker’s 80s masterpiece ‘Cityscape’”. The enchanting melodic exchanges between tenor and guitar, with Luft sometimes also deploying a more conventional jazz guitar sound, are guaranteed to beguile the listener.

Flanigan and Youngs are added to the equation for a spirited and swinging romp through Jackie McLean’s boppish “Little Melonae”, a piece written by the late saxophonist for his then young daughter. Luft’s agility around the fretboard is matched by O’Higgins’ fluency and inventiveness on the tenor. Flanigan’s surging Hammond and Youngs’ subtle but propulsive drumming help to keep the pot bubbling, and the organist also impresses as a soloist.

The first Monk offering is “Locomotive”, another quartet performance that successfully combines Monk’s quirkiness with a relaxed sense of swing. Luft and O’Higgins deliver lithe solos on guitar and tenor respectively while Flanigan also weighs in at the keyboard. Incidentally, the Irishman is also a talented pianist, as evidenced by his earlier work with guitarist Ant Law.

“Minor Mishap” was written by the pianist Tommy Flanagan (no relation) and was originally recorded by a group featuring Coltrane. Here organ and guitar replace the trumpet and piano that appeared on the original. The piece is a Blue Note style swinger that features some typically nimble guitar soloing from Luft, exultant, loquacious tenor from O’Higgins and some dexterous manual work from Flanigan, all driven along by the crisp drumming of Youngs, who also gets to enjoy a series of vigorous drum breaks towards the close.

Credited to George Treadwell and Jerry Valentine “I’ll Wait And Pray” represents a dip into the standards repertoire. It’s an intimate ballad performance with O’Higgins at his most expressive as Luft plays with great taste and delicacy. Flanigan’s Hammond provides additional depth, colour and texture.

Monk’s “Trinkle-Tinkle” features admirably tight and cohesive ensemble passages interspersed by fluent and expansive individual solos from O’Higgins on tenor and Luft on guitar.

Coltrane’s “Like Sonny” is ushered in by Youngs at the kit before O’Higgins states the familiar theme on tenor and subsequently expounds upon it as he takes the first solo. Luft follows with another solo that demonstrates both his virtuosity and his versatility. He’s a supremely fluent soloist in the orthodox jazz guitar style, as here,  as well as being a player who has absorbed more contemporary influences from the realms of rock and world music.

Monk’s celebrated ballad “’Round Midnight” is given an intimate duo reading with the co-leaders combining effectively,  as well as exchanging eloquent solos.

The Richard Rogers / Lorenz Hart song “Spring Is Here” was recorded by Coltrane for the Prestige album “Standard Coltrane”. The version here is an O’Higgins arrangement that updates the piece with the saxophonist playing in a style more commonly associated with a later stage of Coltrane’s career. O’Higgins takes the first solo, followed by Luft, whose fleet fingered fretboard skills continue to impress. The guitarist also adds Bill Frisell inspired textures as he underscores Flanigan’s exchanges with an Elvin Jones inspired Youngs.

Monk’s “Dreamland” features more of Luft’s ambient ‘guitarscaping’ on the solo introduction. Later we hear the warm tones of O’Higgins’ tenor in a languidly swinging arrangement that also includes a more conventional guitar solo from Luft.

The album concludes with a short (one minute) reprise of “Locomotive”, performed as a guitar/tenor duet.

Despite the familiarity of much of the material Luft and O’Higgins deliver on their promise and very much make their own mark on it. The arrangements are fresh and imaginative and the quality of the playing is superb throughout, particularly from the co-leaders. Both O’Higgins and Luft solo with inventiveness and imagination and wear their versatility lightly, their fluency sounds effortless and entirely natural. Meanwhile Flanigan and Youngs offer excellent support, always adding, but never imposing and always seeming to provide just the right beat, nuance or texture. I’d have liked to have heard a little more from Flanigan as a soloist, but perhaps that’s best left for another time and another context.

O’Higgins and Luft have toured this material extensively, and hopefully will do so again. I caught the briefest glimpse of them on the Free Stage at the Clore Ballroom at the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival, which certainly whetted my appetite for more.

Although my personal preference is for original material (like “Riser” or some of O’Higgins’ 90s output during his own ‘rising star’ days) it’s easy to hear why this album has attracted so much critical praise and become so popular with jazz audiences.

blog comments powered by Disqus