Monday, July 20, 2009

Monk Higgins On The Side

Monk Higgins contributed sax, keyboards, songs, arrangements and production to many, many records from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, mostly 45s and mostly in the R&B, blues and gospel fields. His jazz work was minimal but notable. He probably won’t be remembered as a significant contributor to jazz. But what he did is certainly worth hearing and memorable all the same.

The list below covers the few jazz dates Monk Higgins helmed for others and while I would have liked to have heard whether the Freddy Robinson albums Monk Higgins did should be included here, I don’t think there were too many other jazz dates Monk Higgins participated in.

Please see other posts for a Monk Higgins biography and a Monk Higgins discography.

Collision in Black - Blue Mitchell (Blue Note 84300, 1968): With Blue Mitchell (trumpet), Jack Richmond, Dick Hyde (trombone), Jim Horn, Ernie Watts (flute), Anthony Ortega (tenor sax), Monk Higgins (tenor sax, piano, organ), Al Vescovo (guitar), Bob West (bass), Paul Humphrey (drums), Miles Grayson (piano, percussion), Dee Ervin (organ, percussion), John Cyr (percussion). Surely one of the hardest turns Blue Note ever took away from their straight jazz formula, Collision In Black is a minor masterpiece, loaded with Motown-derived instrumentals that really cook. Some of Higgins’ ideas outstay their welcome, as if the trumpeter really doesn’t seem to know what to do with the often too-simplistic themes. But it all works surprisingly well. The album, which surprisingly has yet to see the light of day on CD, contains versions of the Monk singles “Monkin’ Around” and “Who Dun It” and such highlights as “Collision in Black,” the Bond-esque “Jo Ju Ja,” “Swahili Suite,” “Keep Your Nose Clean” and “Kick It.” Even “Keep Your Soul Together” out Nats Nat Adderley, who was certainly here first. But Blue Mitchell sounds right at home in R&B and pretty comfortable in the crash of cultures Monk Higgins provides.

Elegant Soul - Gene Harris And The Three Sounds (Blue Note 84301, 1968): With Gene Harris (piano), Andy Simpkins (bass), Carl Burnett (drums) and Bob Jung (reeds), Jim Horn (flute), Alan Estes (vibes, percussion), Al Vescovo (guitar), Paul Humphrey (drums), Miles Grayson, Dee Ervin (percussion), Leonard Malarsky, Louis Kievman, Jesse Erlich, William Kurash, Henry Felber, Albert Steinberg (strings), Ralph Schaeffer, Dave Burk, Ron Fulsom, Tibor Zelig (violins), Phil Goldberg, Leonard Selic (viola), Jerry Kessler (cello). Following a previous orchestral record with Oliver Nelson, pianist Gene Harris was clearly looking to connect with younger listeners who were discovering the “black blues” of Muddy Waters and B.B. King through rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the newer soul sounds of Otis Redding and James Brown. Elegant Soul was the answer. Higgins, who had actually put in time with blues legends like Muddy Waters and crafted a whole back catalog of his own R&B grooves, really changed up The Three Sounds. The trio, aided by occasional horns, strings and background vocalists, had never sounded this out-and-out four on the floor before. But Higgins brings out more of the gospel in Harris’ trio that was always there rather than the R&B they were all aiming for. Not a bad thing, yet it never really kicks into gear until track three, Higgins’ break beat classic “Sittin’ Duck” (all nine minutes of it – probably about four minutes more than was necessary). Once it clicks, though, it’s a joy to hear. Higgins really gives each song the “plenty, plenty soul” notes writer Herb Wong credits him with and provides Harris with ample space to do what he does best (though it’s pretty obvious that Humphrey’s drums drive most of the beats here, not Burnett’s). Highlights include Higgins’ classic “Sittin’ Duck,” “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (believe it or not), “African Sweets” and the dark groove of Higgins’ “Book of Slim.” Issued on CD in 2008.

Flipped – Flipped Out - Stanley Turrentine (Canyon 7701, 1969): With Paul Humphrey (drums), King Errison (sic) (conga), Fred Robinson (guitar), Al Vescovo (guitar), Joann Growler (sic) (piano), Wilton Felder (bass) and Victor Feldman (percussion). Reissued in any number of formats on many budget-priced labels, this is perhaps among Stanley Turrentine’s least enjoyable records. If R&B kingpin Monk Higgins and the soulful Stanley Turrentine seemed to suggest an ideal musical match, Flipped – Flipped Out proved that it wasn’t to be. Probably recorded somewhere between Turrentine’s 1969 departure from Blue Note and before his classic 1970 CTI debut, Sugar, this album seems to be missing the sophistication and the classy programming either Blue Note or CTI would have automatically ensured. Perhaps it’s the choice of cover tunes – watered-down soul consisting of The Fifth Dimension’s “Wedding Bell(s) Blues,” Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday” and “My Cherie Amour” and Bill Medley’s “Brown Eyed Woman.” Turrentine, of course, sounds as true to form as ever. Monk doesn’t sound too shabby either (check out the percussion on the otherwise cheesy “My Cherie Amour”). It’s just that the material leaves much to be desired. Even the set’s originals aren’t that interesting. Includes Higgins’ swampy break beat “Flipped Out” as well as Higgins/Erwin’s less interesting “I’ll Take You All The Way There” and “Toe Hold.” The rest is fairly unendurable. Note: I have yet to see a “complete” version of the Canyon LP on CD.

Bantu Village - Blue Mitchell (Blue Note 84324, 1969): With Blue Mitchell, Bobby Bryant (trumpet), Charlie Loper (trombone), Buddy Colette (flute), Bill Green (flute, alto sax), Plas Johnson (tenor sax), Dee Ervin (piano, percussion), Monk Higgins (piano, percussion), Al Vescovo, Fred Robinson (guitar), Bob West, Wilton Felder (bass), John Guerin, Paul Humphrey (drums), Alan Estes, King Errisson (conga). Blue Mitchell’s revered Bantu Village is the second of the trumpeter’s two collaborations with Monk Higgins and the last of his Blue Note albums. Here Monk breaks out of the Motown mold and audibly amps up the R&B as announced by the “It’s Your Thing” groove of the opening “Hnic.” There may be an African thing to many of the titles. But Monk and Mitchell have settled into a pretty heady groove, which is mostly R&B, but on several occasions (“Bantu Village,” “Bush Girl”) veers closer to soul jazz. The charts are ramped up a bit too for a Monk Higgins album and that works well in its favor. And Mitchell responds in kind with some interesting playing that doesn’t riff off of other riffs. It’s a shame that Monk and Mitchell didn’t explore things a bit more after this. The album has been reissued on vinyl recently, but unfortunately remains unissued on CD. Highlights: “Hnic,” “Na Ta Ka,” “Bantu Village” and “Blue Dashiki.”

Soul Symphony - The Three Sounds (Blue Note 84341, 1969): With Gene Harris (piano), Henry Franklin (bass), Carl Burnett (drums) and David Duke or Art Maebe (French horn), Buddy Collette (flute, alto sax), Freddy Robinson (guitar), Alan Estes (percussion), Specialties Unlimited (Alex Brown, Clydie King, Mamie Galore - background vocals), Sid Sharp or Jim Getzoff (string section). The second of three studio collaborations between The Three Sounds and Monk Higgins features an ambitious suite composed by Higgins called “Soul Symphony.” The 26-minute opus is not at all shaped like a traditional symphony and is little more than a number of soulful R&B vamps weaved together into one long piece, all driven solely by the pianisms of Gene Harris. It’s hard to dislike when broken into bite-size chunks. But it’s really hard to appreciate as any sort of major work, especially when the piano dominates the entire piece. After you get through all of that, the classic Higgins romp “Repeat After Me” is here and “Upper Four Hundred,” the oddly titled “Popsicle Pimp” and the soundtrack-like “Black Sugar” are all worth hearing. But “Repeat After Me” is about all that’s worth hitting the repeat button for here. Issued on CD in 2008.

Live At The ‘It’ Club - Gene Harris And The Three Sounds (Blue Note 35338, 1970): With Gene Harris (piano), Henry Franklin (bass), Carl Burnett (drums). Michel Ruppli’s 1988 discography, The Blue Note Label lists a March 6, 1970, Three Sounds concert recorded at the “It” club that wasn’t issued. The music on this 1996 CD of the March 6, 1970, Three Sounds concert recorded at the “It” club had never been issued before, but none of the music included on this CD is even listed in the Rupli book, which, by the way, indicates the recordings were made over March 6 and 7, 1970. It turns out it’s also one of the very best Three Sounds records out there. Had it actually come out in 1970, the Three Sounds might actually have attained some of the fame and fortune Ramsey Lewis had enjoyed. Monk Higgins was sort of guiding the group at this point, providing material and arrangements. But here, it’s just the trio. No orchestras. No background singers. No percussion. Just fine and funky Three Sounds at their finest and funkiest best. Even the ballads don’t sound out of place here. They’re like breathers to appreciate the trio’s magic in between the grooves they rouse the audience with elsewhere. Harris’ “I’m Still Sad” is the disc’s best moment – a real groove that never tires at eight and a half minutes. Monk Higgins provides the other highlights – “Funky Pullett,” “Baby Man” and an always welcome visit back to the great “Sittin’ Duck.”

Live At The ‘It’ Club Volume 2 - Gene Harris And The Three Sounds (Blue Note 23997, 1970): With Gene Harris (piano), Henry Franklin (bass), Carl Burnett (drums). In 1970, producer Monk Higgins put together a double album of material recorded by the Three Sounds at the “It” club on March 6 and 7, 1970, for Blue Note Records, overdubbing percussion he played himself later in the studio. For whatever reason, the album was never issued. It wasn’t even assigned a number. Thirty years later – after both Higgins and Harris had died – producer Bob Belden reassembled the music (removing “Virgin Pearl,” “This Guy’s In Love,” “Judy’s Blues” and “How Insensitive”), got rid of the overdubbed percussion and issued the album on CD as Live At The ‘It’ Club Volume 2, since a CD of material from the concert(s) had already been issued in 1996. Like the first CD, it is a terrific showcase for the funky Three Sounds trio. It’s easy to hear on a disc like this why most jazz artists often sound better live than they do on their studio recordings. There’s more spontaneity, more personality, less pandering to popularity, less fitting in and, simply, more interesting music. What’s more, Gene Harris, like many of jazz’s best voices, feeds off the energy of the audience. And there’s little doubt that the audience wasn’t getting its money worth here. Highlights include the “Ain’t That Peculiar” groove of Higgins’ “Put On Train,” Higgins’ “Down Home,” Higgins’ hit for Freddy Robinson, “Black Fox” (which actually predates the remarkably similar sounding “Ain’t No Sunshine”), and Higgins and Harris’ bluesy “Apollo 21”. Even “Eleanor Rigby,” “Get Back” and “Come Together” rise well above the typical dreck Beatles covers usually inspire, with Harris launching into a gospel zeal that bodily lifts each of the pop songs above their usual groundings. Monk Higgins and the Three Sounds would record “Put On Train” and “Eleanor Rigby” again the following year on Gene Harris and the Three Sounds, the final Three Sounds record and the last time Gene Harris and Monk Higgins worked together.

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