Saxophonist Dave O’Higgins recently released his new album It’s Always 9:30 in Zog, his 19th album as leader. “It was time for a new album and I wanted to get back to writing some more original tunes. I’ve done that quite a lot in the past but the last few albums that I’ve presented as leader have either been contrafact (which are new melodies written on existing chord progressions) or standards, or other people’s material. So this time I wanted to get back to more of an original statement. I’ve had the same working band for about five or six years. I built it all around getting a big tour organised. About a year ago, maybe a little more, I started to try and get as many dates together as I could. I amassed a 34 date tour, which we’re in the middle of right now. I took two weeks off last Christmas time to write the album and we recorded it in January over two days.”
Of the 12 tracks on the album, “There are two standards, eight originals and one track by South African musician Bheki Mseleku, and one tune by the Brazilian musician Chico Chagas. Probably the tune of mine that I most enjoy playing is Morpheus, which is a groovy bossa nova tune with a slightly unusual structure.”
O’Higgins often finds it difficult to find the time to do his own music, because he’s always working on other people’s projects. “It’s one of the reasons why I made such a big effort to organise this 34 date tour because obviously that’s 100% my own project. But also the new Matt Bianco project is 50% mine because I’ve co-written all the material, done all the arrangements and I MD the band. When I play with Darius Brubeck’s quartet and The Brubecks Play Brubeck, I don’t write with those groups but I’m a very integral part of the sound. As the saxophone player in a quartet you’re bound to be. I have a lot of creative involvement in most of the main projects that I do, which I really enjoy.”
Rather than compose on the saxophone, O’Higgins will often sit at the piano with pencil and manuscript paper. “I mess around and ideas tend to come out quite fast. I’ve got what they call ‘arranger’s piano skills’ so I can play bass lines, harmonies and melodies. I can pretty much perform them in real-time on the piano so it helps me get a really good overview and I find that a real piano is a great instrument to just sit at and get an idea of how things work together. Before I sit down I tend to have a nugget of an idea in my head. Either a simple phrase or a groove or a little harmonic idea that I’m hearing in my mind’s ear. I approach composition a little bit like I do improvisation, in that I try to start with a strong motif and then just develop it organically. I find that if I trust my instincts and commit fairly quickly to things, it tends to come out better than if I pore over them too much.”
“So I’ve learnt to be quite quick at it now, actually. It’s a fun process for me now. It was like pulling teeth initially. When I started trying to write, I had no idea how to do it. It was a struggle but now it’s quite an easy process.”
Asked if he was ever taught composition whilst a student at City University: “No is the simple answer to that but I’m a keen studier. I feel like I’ve studied music my whole life because I enjoy researching things and anytime I hear something that I like, I really get into it. I either transcribe it or I find scores, and study them. I’ve been to all sorts of lessons with people at odd times so it’s been a big voyage of self-discovery, that whole process. I teach it a lot now at the London College of Creative Media (LCCM) as well. I don’t teach composition but I teach harmony and the basics of arranging skills. I’ve learnt a lot on the fly, in the process of helping other people to do it. Initially it was through trial and error, which is sort of the old fashioned way of doing it.”
Halfway through his tour, O’Higgins was in Devon about to perform at the Teignmouth Jazz Festival when we spoke. “We played in Calstock last night which is technically, just, in Cornwall, just over the border. This next week we go as far as Aberdeen and then back again. So we’re travelling the length and breadth of the UK. It’s great to be on the road with the same band for so many gigs, playing jazz. It’s a real privilege.”
Even when the tour finishes, before Christmas, O’Higgins will still be busy. “I’ve still got quite a lot going on. I’ve co-written the new Matt Bianco album and my quartet are at the core of that band as well. So we’re off to Spain just after the end of our quartet tour with Matt Bianco. And then just before Christmas I’m in the studio with Geoff Gascoyne who is doing a 1950s jazz library album and then in the early new year I’ve got a tour with Brubecks Play Brubeck. We’re playing six shows at Ronnie Scott’s and then I go on a tour of Holland with Matt Bianco, then I’m recording an album with Tommaso Starace in Italy. And that’s all before the end of January so I’m pretty busy!”
O’Higgins is also keen to give credit to the other musicians in his regular quartet. “The band is only as good as all the constituent parts in it and how we interact. On the road with me are Sebastiaan De Krom on drums who is from Holland and is absolutely the most swinging drummer around, I think, with a great sense of form and dynamic and incredible concentration levels. Geoff Gascoyne on bass who does himself a lot of band leading and arranging and has got a very good producer-type overview of what is going on. And on piano there are two different piano players, who are sharing the tour on account of their other commitments. Graham Harvey, who is on the record, and Rob Barron. They’re both terrific piano players and great soloists but also really importantly very sympathetic compers, which makes an enormous difference in the context of the band. If you’re a piano player then you’re doing that more often than you are soloing.”
Looking forward to his appearance at The Verdict on 8th December, O’Higgins is characteristically upbeat, “When we play live we try and play acoustic as much as we can so there’s a really nice acoustic sonority to the group.”
The Dave O’Higgins Quartet are at The Verdict on Friday 8th December.
The album It’s Always 9:30 in Zog is out on the JVG label.
[Photo of Dave O’Higgins by Christine Ongsiek.]