Words like “synergy” and “interplay” are thrown around pretty liberally when discussing compatible jazz musicians, but with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins this took on another level of meaning. It is difficult to reconcile the notion that they were not somehow plugged into the same brain, so uncanny is their coordination on virtually every level. My job as a music educator is to explain stuff, but I have about as little capacity to explain this level of interplay as I do to explain true love in purely scientific terms.
Wrapping up my Cedar tributes (and my lists, having recently devoted Top 10s to each of these men without the other), here are 10 highlights among the dozens and dozens of tracks these two collaborated on that have been essential to the development of my own musical conception.
1 ) “I Din’t Know What Time It Was” (from St. Thomas by the Sweet Basil Trio)
Cedar and Billy are joined on this sublimely swinging and well-developed live performance by the great Ron Carter on bass. If you doubt my “plugged into the same brain” hypothesis, listen to this and then try to formulate a credible argument to the contrary. It is also difficult to reconcile that this album, one of the greatest jazz trio sessions of the last 30 years, isn’t readily available, but you can still find it on CD, albeit likely used. What are you waiting for?
2 ) “Shadow of Your Smile” (from The In Sound by Eddie Harris)
This was Cedar and Billy’s first record date together (in a rhythm section, as above, with Ron Carter) but you wouldn’t know it from listening. I’ve said it before, but this is one of the most swinging performances in recorded history, and I’ll stand by that statement ‘til the end!
3 ) “Bolivia” (from Eastern Rebellion by Eastern Rebellion, sometimes issued under Cedar’s name)
The first incarnation of the great quartet Eastern Rebellion featured saxophonist George Coleman and bassist Sam Jones, both of whom are well-featured on the original recording of one of Cedar’s best-loved compositions.
4 ) “Satin Doll” (from The Trio, Vol. 1 by Cedar Walton)
“The Trio” in this case refers to these two plus David Williams on bass, and my goodness did these three (and David and Cedar after Billy’s passing) have a wonderful rapport. This performance, like so many of the standards they played together, sounds simultaneously extemporaneous and meticulously planned. I don’t really know how both can be true simultaneously, but that’s the way it is.
5 ) “Soweto” (from Soweto by Billy Higgins)
This fiery Higgins composition features bassist Tony Dumas (a longtime associate of Cedar and Billy) and tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, Coleman’s successor in Eastern Rebellion. And keep listening – the whole album is great and features (especially on the last track) some great guitar (!) and vocals (!!) by Higgins.
6 ) “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” (from Nature Boy by Jackie McLean)
Like any ballad that Cedar, Billy and David Williams played together, this is fluid, tender and well-arranged. This track gets extra points for sentimental value, however, as it was the second to last session that Cedar and Billy did together, as well as the last studio recording by the great Jackie McLean.
7 ) “Ugetsu” (from God Bless Jug and Sonny by Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt)
Sonny and Jug actually sit this one out and give way to the rhythm section of Cedar, Billy and Sam Jones for this trio performance that ranks as my personal favorite among the numerous great versions of the song (including, of course, the wonderful Art Blakey version).
8 ) “Precipice” (from Roots by Slide Hampton Quintet featuring Clifford Jordan)
One of Cedar’s most durable relationships was with saxophonist Clifford Jordan, and this Jordan tune is a stellar example of the rapport that they (and Billy) shared. Slide Hampton sounds pretty darned good here too.
9 ) “Off Minor” (from Among Friends by Cedar Walton)
With Buster Williams on bass, this Monk tune gets a definitive Walton-Higgins treatment, with a super-tight arrangement and hard-swinging solo excursions.
10 ) “Dear Ruth” (from Simple Pleasures by Eastern Rebellion)
Featuring the Ralph Moore/David Williams incarnation of Eastern Rebellion, this beautiful uber-slow swing song (in the vein of the Basie/Neil Hefti “Lil’ Darlin’”) is Cedar’s tribute to his mother.
I think you left out “ I Mean You”. So let’s make it the top eleven tracks. !!
Great post! Ethan Iverson’s “Do the Math” essay “Cedar’s Blues” tipped me off to The Magic Triangle and Cedar’s partnerships with Higgins and Jordan. I’ve just collected lots of the records, and it’s great to have some tips on standout tracks to give close listens to.
I just posted on this topic and wondered if anyone else had this experience. Here you are! Thank you! It’s one of the stranger metaphysical moments I’ve witnessed in person. Forty years later it stays with me.
Hi Ken – thanks for the feedback, I’d be interested to read your writing on this!