by Ian Mann
September 21, 2021
An undeniably classy piece of work from four masters of their chosen jazz genre. This is unpretentious, swinging mainstream jazz that will appeal to a good many listeners.
Harvey / O’Higgins Project
“That’s The Way To Live!”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0094)
Graham Harvey – piano, Dave O’Higgins – tenor sax, Jeremy Brown – double bass, Josh Morrison – drums
Pianist Graham Harvey has enjoyed a long association with saxophonist Dave O’ Higgins. He has been a regular member of O’Higgins’ quartet and was also part of the quartet that O’Higgins co-led with bassist Geoff Gascoyne.
More recently Harvey made an important contribution to the album “His n’ Hers”, an Ubuntu recording from 2020 that featured the twin tenor front line of husband and wife Dave and Judith O’Higgins. Review here;
Harvey leads his own trio featuring bassist Dave Chamberlain and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, while the quartet that appears on this recording has also appeared under Harvey’s leadership. Other jazz artists with whom he has collaborated include vocalist Stacey Kent and saxophonist Derek Nash.
He has also been a prolific session musician, once acting as pianist and musical director for the band Incognito in addition to working with George Benson, M People, Hamish Stuart, Will Lee, Lulu, The Jones Girls, Phillip Bailey, Chaka Khan, The BBC Big Band, Omar, Madeline Bell, Jocelyn Brown, Mica Paris, Kenny Thomas and even Sir Cliff Richard. Meanwhile Harvey and O’Higgins have worked together with Matt Bianco.
O’Higgins is the better known of the co-leaders in jazz terms. A former NYJO member he worked with guitarists Jim Mullen and Martin Taylor and with the band Roadside Picnic before establishing himself in the 1990s as something of a rising star with a string of album releases under his own name for a variety of labels, mainly concentrating on original contemporary material.
In the 21st century O’Higgins has gone back to his roots and his output has been more mainstream, including collaborations with his fellow saxophonist, the American Eric Alexander, and with rising star guitarist Rob Luft.
This latest project also has its roots in the jazz mainstream as Harvey explains;
“The musical landscape that the Harvey / O’Higgins Project inhabits is neither innovative or fashion led. There is however a thread in jazz that has continued from its origins in the small groups of the swing era, through bebop and up to the present day that embodies the aesthetic of harmonic integrity, i.e. ‘making the changes’, coupled with rhythmic integrity, or ‘being in the pocket’. This is where we exist.”
“It’s not lack of creativity that leads us to explore the standard repertoire and forms of jazz. Instead these forms provide the canvas for improvisation and dialogue. The tradition of jazz provides an infinite horizon to experiment and create. Just as a Bach fugue is open to a myriad of creative interpretations so is the blues, or a great standard. Swing is at the core of what this Project is all about, with ballad, Latin and groove variations”.
The Project and the resultant album is very much a product of lockdown. Both Harvey and O’Higgins teach at the London College of Contemporary Media where they have developed the Jazz Performance curriculum, with an emphasis on the teaching methods of the veteran American jazz pianist and educator Barry Harris (born 1929). Harvey and O’Higgins have remained in constant contact throughout the pandemic, debating musical ideas and strategies, with the results of these discussions finding their way into these performances.
The pair have also set up their own film and video company, Off The Road Productions, which has produced a pilot feature for the educational programme “Workin’ & Streamin’”, plus lockdown shows for the Harvey / O’Higgins Project, the Allison Neale Quartet and the Dominic Howles Septet.
Despite Harvey’s comments the Project is not entirely dismissive of original music. The programme for “That’s The Way To Live!” is divided equally between jazz and bebop standards and original compositions by members of the band, among them Harvey’s title track. That said the pieces written by the band members are very much within the swing and bop traditions.
The album commences with the standard “I Wish I Knew”, distinguished by O’Higgins’ warm tenor sax sound and the effortless swing of the rhythm section. It’s firmly rooted in the tradition with fluent but expansive solos from O’Higgins and from Harvey at the piano. There’s also a delightful, dexterous and swinging solo from bassist Brown.
A second standard, “Chlo-e (Song Of The Swamp)” offers more of the same, but raises the tempo slightly. O’Higgins’ sound is more hard edged but also incorporates some bravura excursions into his instrument’s upper registers. Harvey’s solo is both swinging and inventive and Morrison enjoys a series of colourful drum breaks.
Credited to Morrison and O’Higgins the bluesy “That’s What You’re Gonna Get” explores the legacy of the hard bop tradition with solos coming from Harvey at the piano, O’Higgins on tenor sax and Brown at the bass. Close your eyes and could be listening to a classic Blue Note album from the ‘50s or ‘60s.
Brown takes up the compositional reins for “Mesa”, which borrows from the cooler sounds of West Coast jazz, with O’Higgins adopting a drier sound on tenor and again venturing into the instrument’s upper registers. Harvey’s piano solo swings easily and effortlessly and there’s a delightfully dexterous and highly melodic bass solo from Brown, playfully supported by the soft chatter of Morrison’s drums.
The third item in a clutch of originals is O’Higgins’ “Tropical Paradise”, an appropriately upbeat offering that combines boppish complexity and rhythmic exoticism with an easy going sense of swing. O’Higgins delivers some of his most inspired soloing of the set, with Harvey also featuring prominently.
Charlie Parker’s “Segment” finds the group diving even more deeply into the bebop tradition with a high energy performance that sees the members of the quartet navigating the challenges of the piece with ease. O’Higgins excels once more and there’s also a dynamic drum feature from the consistently impressive Morrison. Harvey then takes over at the piano for a sparkling, fleet fingered solo.
The standard “More Than You Know” sees the Project exploring ballad territory for the first time. It opens with an eloquent solo tenor sax cadenza from O’Higgins before opening up to embrace warmly lyrical solos from O’Higgins and Harvey plus a melodic bass cameo from Brown. Following the percussive pyrotechnics of “Segment” Morrison demonstrates his versatility by deploying brushes throughout, the epitome of good taste and admirable restraint.
Harvey’s exuberant title track increases the energy levels once more and is introduced by the composer’s gospel tinged pianistics. We’re back in broadly hard bop territory with O’Higgins’ muscular tenor solo followed by Harvey’s expansive pianism and Brown’s lively bass feature. Drummer Morrison provides crisp and propulsive support throughout and enjoys a brief cameo at the close.
The title of the O’Higgins original “Stir Crazy” may well be a lockdown reference - the album was recorded in September 2020. The music itself is steeped in the blues with smouldering solos coming from Harvey at the piano, O’Higgins on smoky tenor and Brown at the bass.
The album concludes with a relaxed rendition of the standard “Autumn Nocturne”, laid back and gently swinging with O’Higgins’ warm tenor tones followed by Harvey’s slyly inventive pianism and the rounded sounds of Brown’s double bass. There’s also another of O’Higgins’ beautiful solo saxophone cadenzas.
As the band members readily admit there’s nothing remotely radical about this album, which does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. However it is an undeniably classy piece of work from four masters of their chosen jazz genre. The five original compositions blend in perfectly with the standards and are totally in keeping with the mood and the objectives of the album as a whole. This is unpretentious, swinging mainstream jazz that will appeal to a good many listeners.
I have to admit that my personal listening tastes these days are inclined towards something more original and challenging. That said, I’ve always been a big admirer of O’Higgins’ playing and despite my reservations about the conservative nature of the recording I suspect that this quartet would represent a hugely enjoyable prospect in the live environment, very much their natural habitat I would say.
This is an experienced and very well balanced group, with O’Higgins probably the best known individual member. However everybody performs well and the estimable Harvey is very much one of the unsung heroes of British jazz and the wider music scene as a whole.blog comments powered by Disqus