INTERVIEW: Dave O'Higgins (New Album, and Tour - It's Always 9.30 In Zog)

Dave O'Higgins
Photo Credit: Christine Ongsiek

Ahead of a 34 date tour in support of his new album It’s Always 9.30 In Zog, saxophonist DAVE O’HIGGINS discusses jazz tradition and innovation, securing trust in your audience, and how to build on that trust creatively. Interview by Dan Paton:

With over 30 years of experience as a professional musician and bandleader, Dave O’Higgins has a mature and informed perspective on his continuing musical development. ‘I’ve made 19 albums as leader now and I’ve done many different things’, he explains at his Brixton home where he also records and produces his music, over a very sophisticated cup of coffee from his impressive coffee machine. ‘I’ve made albums entirely of standards and entirely of originals and, stylistically, I’ve also diversified a lot. A lot of this has to do with what I enjoy playing personally and also with what I’ve found, through 30 years of gigging, that audiences enjoy too. In my experience with taking a band on tour, audiences like a degree of familiarity and you have to cajole them in to listening to stuff that’s entirely original. If you can cajole them in an approachable way, they will wholly buy into it. The media, however, tend to prefer it if you’re entirely original! You’re slightly between a rock and a hard place in terms of whether you want to get good reviews or whether you want to appeal to the audiences you’re playing to.’

O’Higgins feels he can square this particular circle partially because his work so far with his current quartet (with drummer Sebastiaan De Krom, pianist Graham Harvey and bassist Geoff Gascoyne) has mainly focused on standards and contrafacts, neatly combining the familiar with more creative material. This has directed him to record a new album with the group, It’s Always 9.30 In Zog, that focuses on original material and the compositions of others with whom O’Higgins has personal connections. ‘The albums of contrafacts were extremely well received on tour and the music won me quite a lot of trust with my regular audience’, he suggests. ‘This helps with getting them to listen to my original compositions. I feel I’ve now earned a right to make a record of originals as I think the audience are still engaged.’

The UK contemporary jazz scene tends to focus relentlessly on the new, often with very exciting results, but O’Higgins is keen to emphasise both tradition and innovation in equal measure. ‘I like my music to feel as if it has a lineage through the history of the music. Also, as a jazz musician, I think it’s a great part of really learning your craft to know a lot of tunes and to know standards. That’s the common language – wherever you go in the world, you’ll meet a lot of musicians, someone will call a tune and no one will need to look it up.’ The strong sense of lineage and intuition (deeply informed improvising) comes across with remarkable clarity on …Zog. ‘But I don’t just stop there’, he says, being careful not to come across as a nostalgist. ‘I’m also very inspired by what is going on today and I enjoy the chance to be creative as well.’ Whilst O’Higgins is enthusiastic about contemporary jazz, he also seems acutely aware of some of its potential pitfalls. ‘I’ve heard some bands play some terrifically engaging thematic material but then when they get to the blowing it’s just two chords or it’s a repetitive vamp. I try to make sure the melodic structures have some significance to the improvised structure.’ He also appears to feel much more confident in this aspect of his compositional craft these days. ‘I feel my originals are now more substantial than they used to be – or at least the process seems to come a little more easily’, he argues. ‘The balance between the composition and creating a form that’s engaging to improvise on makes more sense to me now’.

O’Higgins’ original compositions for this album are thoughtful and have a strong sense of internal logic, but they also leave plenty of room for freedom and spontaneity. The title track, for example, begins, in O’Higgins’ own words ‘with a minute or so of avant-garde chaos’, before mutating into a blues with a melody incorporating some ‘Walt Weisskopf and Jerry Bergonzi inspired triad pairs’. Alien With Extraordinary Ability adopts a ‘modal approach’, and hints at early Return To Forever, with some dexterous brushwork samba from De Krom. O’Higgins seems particularly enthusiastic about a piece called Morpheus, named after the Greek God of dreams and deploying a wide variety of compositional techniques. ‘I find that when we play it, audiences respond really well because it has a romantic, memorable melody. It began as a samba but developed into more of a groove piece’. The Adventures of Little Peepsie is written from the perspective of a mouse invading a household and therefore follows ‘an episodic nature, with lots of little chops and changes’.

This idea of feeling alien or disorientated, seems to be a running theme on this particular album. Of the album’s distinctive title, O’Higgins explains that ‘it’s a quasi-humorous title and it’s deliberately a little bit cryptic. If you imagine what it would be like to be from another planet and witness the carry on that goes on here, you’d be pretty bemused by it. More generally, it’s a philosophical condition where you feel as if you don’t necessarily belong or come from the same place.’ The title of the piece Alien With Extraordinary Ability, as well as referring to the US work Visa for which UK musicians need to apply, addresses similar concepts. ‘It’s an incredible phrase’, O’Higgins exclaims. ‘I like it as a general philosophical analogy to accept the fact that you can’t necessarily explain things.’ Given the particularly turbulent and unpredictable political and social context of the past 18 months, is this sense of alienation or confusion is something he feels more strongly at this point in time? ‘I think we all have those moments where we feel alien, with political zeitgeists and whatever’, he ruminates coyly.

In addition to the original compositions and ideas, there are two compositions from musicians with whom O’Higgins has former working connections. Timelessness is a Bheki Mseleku composition. ‘Bheki was an incredible musician and I had the honour of playing with him. He lived in London for a while and we would play together at the 606 club. South African musicians really champion him as a hero and rightly so. Recently I did a festival in South Africa where I played in a big band run by the piano player Afrika Mkhezi. He was playing the music of Bheki Mseleku arranged for big band. It was an interesting band made up of South African musicians and international musicians at the festival. It was a real eye opener playing that music with a lot of guys who knew Bheki quite well and really getting inside it.’ Accordionist and pianist Chico Chagas composed Brixton especially for O’Higgins. ‘Chico and I played a lot together when he lived in London for a few years’, O’Higgins explains. ‘This was one of the tunes he wrote and he very kindly wrote it specifically for me. He used to say that Brixton, apart from the absence of a beach, reminded him of Rio. He felt there was a similarly multicultural vibe. The tune really plaintively captures that – Brazilian musicians are great with this nostalgic feeling of longing for a place – they call it saudade. It evokes the charm that Brixton has in a quirky kind of way.’

It is very clear that O’Higgins’ very impressive band make substantial individual contributions to this recording. Of Sebastiaan De Krom, O’Higgins says: ‘He is the most swinging drummer I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with. It’s a really special thing to have that much vibe.’ He also plays very musically, with a melodic sense as well as with intensity. ‘Sebastian really gets to learn the forms of the songs’, O’ Higgins explains. ‘He’s always trying to do something to improve the overall palette. He’s got plenty of chops too, so when they get unleashed it’s special, but there’s nice space and contrast at other times too.’

De Krom also has years of experience working with the highly rated bass player Geoff Gascoyne. ‘Seb and Geoff lock up very very well after years on the road with Jamie Cullum’s band together. A core of the jazz idiom runs through their playing and they are also very crafty with grooves other than swing. They always seem to know the right thing to do’, O’Higgins enthuses. ‘I trust them implicitly.’

Completing the quartet is pianist Graham Harvey. a former musical director of Incognito (‘from the time when that band was at its most visible and important’) and currently also tours with Stacey Kent’s band. ‘He’s a very creative soloist, with a nice combination of Bill Evans touch with an amazing grasp of block chords.’ In some ways his comping, both supporting his own right hand improvising and also beneath other soloists, is even more remarkable and imaginative. O’Higgins agrees: ‘He’s my favourite comper’. He elaborates further by explaining that ‘a lot of piano players are, for my taste, too busy in their comping. Graham has great taste and a sense of when the right moments are to chivvy you along. The more we play, we’re not afraid to use space to use development. There’s quite a lot of sustained storytelling going on. It’s a real thrill to play with people who are mature enough and confident enough to leave some space. Graham is one of the main architects of that in the band.’

The group are about to undertake a massive 34-date tour in support of the album, including an album launch show at Pizza Express Jazz Club in London on 12 September. This has clearly been a substantial feat of organisation, planning having begun over a year ago, and made possible with the help of support from the Arts Council and PRSF (O’Higgins is actually very positive about the funding process, claiming it is ‘very thorough and helps you ensure that you do all the promotional activities as best you can’).

Remarkably, O’Higgins is even managing to fit in some dates with Matt Bianco (‘I see it as my pop project and they see it as their jazz project’, he jokes) in a short gap between two periods of his own shows. O’Higgins is visibly excited about playing with these musicians over such a long stretch. ‘Musically, the band really feels on fire when we play together. It just hits the ground running from the count in and stays that way to the end. It’s a band that’s really gelling’. It sounds as if they may have reached planet Zog by the end of the run.

It's Always 9.30 in Zog Tour dates

Tuesday 12 September Pizza Express Jazz Club, London
Friday 15 September Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northhampton
Tuesday 28 September The Hidden Rooms, Cambridge
Friday 6 October Dorchester Arts Centre
Saturday 7 October The Parochial Hall (Marsden Jazz Festival)
Tuesday 17 October Talking Heads, Southhampton
Friday 20 October Crooks Social Club, Sheffield
Friday 27 October The Crypt, London
Sunday 29 October The Boaters Inn, London
Monday 30 October The King's Head, Bexley
Friday 3 November Fleece Jazz, Colchester
Sunday 5 November The Oval Tavern, London
Tuesday 7 November Christ Church Marlow
Wednesday 8 November The Old Clee Social Club, Grimsby
Friday 10 November Wakefield Jazz Club
Wednesday 15 November Jazzland, Swansea
Thursday 16 November Calstock Arts, Plymouth
Sunday 19 November  Jazz @ the Albert, Bristol
Tuesday 21 November Buccleuch Centre, Langholm
Wednesday 22 November The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh
Thursday 23 November Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
Friday 24 November Atrium Cafe, Clitheroe Castle Museum, Clitheroe
Saturday 25 November Rhosygilwen Cardigan
Monday 27 November Ronnie Scotts
Friday 1 December VoiceBox, Derby
Monday 4 December Beaver Inn, Bideford
Tuesday 5 December St Ives Jazz Club
Wednesday 6 December Loveday's, St. Austell
Thursday 7 December Albany Club, Coventry
Friday 8 December The Verdict, Brighton
Saturday 9 December 606 Club, London

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