Yes, Billy Higgins passed in 2001 and, no, you're not reading incorrectly here in 2014, as Smoke Signal is a reissue of the Life Force label's very first recording project, originally titled In the Hood, a tribute to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. But there's a cool little secret hidden away in this gig, revealed in the liner notes by Dawan Muhammad himself: back in the day, he was what he humorously calls "a jazz groupie" and accepted as such, but what the jazzbos around him didn't know was that he was secretly a nascent but evolving musician privately working on his chops…until Higgins discovered the truth and strongly encouraged the guy to in fact become a muso. Which he did. Thank God.
More, this CD gives a great dip into Muhammad's extremely pleasant flute work, which I like to liken to Yusef Lateef's but not too strongly, as Dawan's work is his own. In the Hood shows what a tight unit the Sextet was, with a discretely dynamite three-horn section (Muhammad within it on sax), a smooth as hell pianist cutting a line between Peterson and Evans, a perambulating bass, and of course Higgins' great work on drums. The sound resides in no definite camp but interpolates everything necessary to the compositions, hitting on straight-ahead, bop, trad, and so on. It's JAZZ, y'all, it's jazz.
Soloing is abundant and signature of each player while demarcating the combo's territory, and the horn comping is dreamy, especially in Straight from the Heart, which travels back to Rusty Bryant days in a balladic slo-groove settling you right back into your easychair, smiling, contemplating the pleasures of life as you reach for another swig of scotch. Joe Henderson's classic Black Narcissus then trots out a metropolitan atmosphere halfway 'twixt old Blue Note and its modernist successors, a chiaroscuro of nightscapes, streetlights, bay bridges, and the hustle and bustle of avenue traffic, all with you, the listener, as the ruminating onlooker meditating on the mid-point between art and life. Ah, but listen to Higgins' trippy drum solo and then how the horns sail back in. Sooooooo good! So, yep, there's more than reason enough to be reissuing work like this, as it proves the old adage that great art is timeless…and Smoke Signal will never have to worry about being left behind.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2015, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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