Following up last week’s Cedar Walton Top 10 list, here are 10 of my favorite tracks by “Smilin’ Billy,” a drummer who has thoroughly blown my mind more times than I can count in my life as a student, fan and player of jazz. Billy had a remarkable ability to adapt to different environments, whether the freest avant-garde or the hardest-grooving soul jazz. Equally remarkably, his personal sound remained distinctive regardless of the context.
Stay tuned for the final installment, covering Cedar and Billy’s work together; in the meantime, enjoy this list of tracks by one of the most versatile musicians this music has known.
1 ) “You Go to My Head” (from the Gigolo by Lee Morgan)
If the only thing Billy Higgins ever did was give nuance to the “jazz boogaloo” movement by playing the funky grooves on tunes like The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan and Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock, he’d be an important historical figure just for that. Though a bit less well-known than those tracks, this is my personal favorite Higgins booty-shaker.
2 ) “McSplivens” (from A Swingin’ Affair by Dexter Gordon)
Higgins was in some ways the perfect drummer for Dexter, as he could play tender ballads, hard swingers and funky Latin grooves. I am partial to their 1970s work together on Steeplechase (Bouncin’ With Dex and Somethin’ Different) but their 1962 Blue Note sides (this album plus Go! from two days earlier with the same band, Gettin’ Around, Clubhouse and Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off) can’t be overlooked by any serious jazz fan.
3 ) “Una Muy Bonita” (from Change of the Century by Ornette Coleman)
Perhaps Billy’s most “significant” association was with the revolutionary quartet of Ornette Coleman. When they got free ‘n’ crazy, Billy was right there, but he also had the capacity to groove amidst the freedom in a way that really underscored how soulful all the members of this ensemble really were. Nowhere is this more apparent than on this hard-grooving Latin-flavored track.
4 ) “Omega” (from Let Freedom Ring by Jackie McLean)
Jackie McLean’s work in the 1960s benefitted often from Billy’s ability to walk the tightrope where he could be infectiously grooving or ruggedly experimental or, when needed, both at the same time. Their work together on this landmark album (and this innovative yet grooving tune) is just one of numerous highlights.
5 ) “Autumn In New York/Scrapple From the Apple” (from Live at the Keystone Korner by Tete Montoliu)
Though Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu is different in many ways from Cedar Walton, they are similar in the importance of the mixture of tight arrangements and inventive, playful piano work. It is not surprising then that Billy adds the perfect flavor to Tete’s trio here.
6 ) “The Blessing” (from Art Deco by Don Cherry)
The mixture of loose yet hard-swinging that defined so much music in Ornette Coleman’s “classic quartet” repertoire is well-represented here on a truly exceptional recording with the same personnel save for James Clay on tenor in place of Ornette.
7 ) “Love Nocturne” (from Dance of Death by Andrew Hill)
Billy’s ability to play in a moody, textural manner is a perfect complement to this recording, also featuring soloists Charles Tolliver and Joe Farrell.
8 ) “What Reason Could I Give” (from Complete Science Fiction Sessions by Ornette Coleman)
Billy traded the drum chair in Ornette Coleman’s group for a period with the great New Orleans progressive drummer Ed Blackwell. Sometimes, though (as on the landmark Free Jazz album), they played together, creating a synergy and sympathy that is rather unusual for two-drummer ensembles. Quirkily enough, my favorite example is on this wild yet irresistibly catchy tune.
9 ) “Herbal Syndrome” (from One Entrance, Many Exits by Mal Waldron)
Joe Henderson wails. And then wails some more. And then even more. Not surprisingly, Billy is with him every step of the way.
10 ) “Arioso” (from The Arioso Touch) by James Williams
Can Billy Higgins play a waltz? Why yes. Quite so. With Williams and bassist Buster Williams, he really shines and propels here. This one, alas, is somewhat hard to find, but worth the search.