by Ian Mann
November 03, 2020
This is an album that fulfils its objectives admirably, an unpretentious, old style two tenor session featuring some fine playing from the entire band.
Judith & Dave O’Higgins
“His ‘n’ Hers”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0066)
Judith O’Higgins – tenor sax (left channel), Dave O’ Higgins- tenor sax (right channel),
Graham Harvey – piano, Jeremy Brown – double bass, Josh Morrison – drums
Saxophonist Dave O’Higgins (born 1964) has been a mainstay of the UK jazz scene since the early 1990s when he first emerged as a bandleader, just in the wake of the 80s jazz boom and following in the footsteps of Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard and Tommy Smith.
O’Higgins’ early albums as a leader for the EFZ label were pretty cutting edge for the time, a convincing band of British post bop, with a focus on original material, that also brought him some international attention. The great American vibraphonist Joe Locke was a guest on one of O’Higgins’ early records.
In more recent years O’Higgins’ music has been more firmly rooted in the jazz mainstream. His previously release teamed him with the young, rising star guitarist Rob Luft, the pair co-leading a quartet featuring organist Scott Flanigan and drummer Rod Youngs on a selection of tunes associated with Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. The album “Play Monk & Trane” also appeared on the Ubuntu label and attracted a good deal of highly positive critical attention. My own (favourable) review of the recording can be read here;
The full history of O’Higgins musical career is too extensive to document here, but includes twenty two albums as a leader or co-leader, collaborations with some major UK and US jazz musicians, plus live and session work with a variety of popular entertainers.
Dave’s German born wife Judith will be a less familiar name to British jazz listeners. She studied both medicine and music education and has enjoyed a successful career as a forensic pathologist. As a saxophonist she has worked with the Matthew Herbert Big Band, the Two Minds Big Band, and with the octet Barnes / O’Higgins & The Sax Section, co-led by Alan Barnes and Dave O’Higgins. Judith also produced and played on the début recording of the Abstract Truth Big Band, directed by Jorg Achim Keller. She is also a published author and an accomplished graphic artist. Her design for the “His ‘n’ Hers” album cover is an affectionate tribute to the 1960s television series “The Avengers” and she has designed a number of other covers for albums featuring the playing of her husband.
Recorded in March 2020 “His ‘n’ Hers” is, in part, a product of the Covid-19 pandemic. For several years Dave has worked with the American pianist and composer Darius Brubeck and his group. 2020 represents the centenary of the birth of Darius’ famous father, Dave Brubeck, and the calendar was full of tour dates celebrating this anniversary. Earlier in March Darius became ill with Covid-19 and all dates were subsequently cancelled. Happily Darius is now recovered, although he was seriously ill for a while.
The silver lining was that this opened the door for Dave and Judith to realise a project that had been on the back burner for some time. The idea of a two tenor set was inspired by the Johnny Griffin / Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davies group, which recorded several albums in the format back in the 1960s.
The O’Higgins’ take Lockjaw’s observation on the nature of his partnership with Griffin as their watchword;
“What we are doing is presenting, side by side, two different styles of playing tenor—a contrast, not a contest”.
My review copy is a CD, but the album was recorded with vinyl in mind, as Dave O’Higgins explains;
“The appeal of this medium was to present something considered and well programmed in an elegantly digestible format. Pour yourself a glass of wine and listen to Side A, whilst perusing the large scale cover art and familiarising yourself with the tune titles and personnel. Then eighteen minutes later it will be time for a refill, and you’ll be lured into hearing what Side B brings. An LP requires careful programming on the part of the artist, in the same way as a good set at a gig. The track order is crucial and, due to the nature of the medium, often listened to in the intended order. The CD format can be the equivalent of the ‘all you can eat’ buffet – too much in one sitting! In addition the tactile nature of the 12 inch disc encourages engagement, not ripping onto a digital device for shuffled play in the background”.
Recorded at the O’Higgins’ own JVG Studio the album seeks to capture something of the quality of the late, great Rudy Van Gelder’s 50s and 60s recordings. It’s a sound that the O’Higgins’ have been perfecting for over a decade.
Turning now to the music, which includes a mix of Dave and Judith O’Higgins originals plus a couple of jazz standards and finally a brace of tunes by fellow saxophonist Dexter Gordon. These last two were in part inspired by the recent re-issue of the Gordon album “Clubhouse”, first recorded in 1965.
The metaphorical Side A kicks off with Judith & Dave’s “Fourth Dimension”, a fiercely swinging, hard bop style offering featuring the husband and wife teaming up on the unison theme before trading individual solos. There’s also a sparkling piano solo from the highly inventive Graham Harvey, plus a series of colourful drum breaks from Josh Morrison. The drummer, in tandem with bassist Jeremy Brown, also made a substantial contribution to the success of pianist Rob Barron’s recent album “From This Moment On”, also released on Ubuntu.
Covid seems to have fed its way into some of the tune titles. Judith & Dave’s “We’ll Forget March” is less frenetic than the opener, its gently loping swing also allowing the tenors to team up on the theme. The O’Higgins’ approach the twin tenor format in a spirit of mutual co-operation rather than gladiatorial competition and the music is all the better for it. Even when soloing one doesn’t get the impression that they are out to ‘cut’ each other. Harvey again impresses with his piano solo and there’s also a feature for the ever dependable Brown.
The first side concludes with “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”, written by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman. It’s at ballad tempo that the rapport between the co-leaders can be best appreciated as they complement each others’ solos. Harvey again impresses with his solo, while Brown and Morrison, the latter deploying brushes, provide suitably sympathetic support.
After flipping the record over (metaphorically speaking), Side B commences with the Judith & Dave composition “Los Bandidos Bogarolles”, the title surely a reference to the panic buying that was going on in March! Introduced by Morrison at the drums it’s a lightly swinging, Latin inflected piece that allows the co-leaders to exchange typically fluent solos, either side of yet another impressive offering from Harvey. Brown is also featured, stretching out at length on bass.
A relaxed but swinging take on “Save Your Love For Me”, written by Buddy Johnson, finds the two tenors working effectively in tandem, before again diverging for individual solos, with each saxophonist deploying a suitably warm and effusive tone. There are also impressive solo contributions from Brown at the bass and Harvey at the piano. Harvey has worked with Dave O’Higgins on previous occasions, notably as part of the quintet the saxophonist co-led with bassist Geoff Gascoyne, and the quality of his playing, either as soloist or accompanist, makes him the perfect choice for this session.
The first of the two Dexter Gordon tunes is “Soy Califa”, originally released on Gordon’s 1964 Blue Note album “A Swingin’ Affair”. This is a lively slice of Latin flavoured bop with the two tenors again working effectively together, before stretching out individually. Harvey adds a wryly inventive, Laitin-esque piano solo and Morrison is also featured briefly at the drums.
The album concludes with the Gordon tune “Hanky Panky”, taken from the “Clubhouse” album, and presented here as a bonus track. Dave and Judith offer a suitably playful interpretation, again working as a single entity before diverging to deliver individual statements, then finally merging together once more. Both saxophonists perform with fluency and authority, as they do throughout the album, and so does the excellent Harvey at the piano.
“His ‘n’ Hers” must be one of the few good things to come out of the Covid crisis. There may be nothing startlingly new here but this is an album that fulfils its objectives admirably, an unpretentious, old style two tenor session featuring some fine playing from the entire band.
For many listeners the album will represent a welcome introduction to the playing of Mrs O’Higgins and it will be interesting to see if she decides to pursue a solo musical career in addition to her other highly impressive list of accomplishments – she’s also involved in the engineering / production process on this album.
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