Tune: “Our Man Higgins”
Album: Lee Morgan, Cornbread (1967)
Composer: Lee Morgan
Soloists: Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, and Herbie Hancock
“Our Man Higgins” is certainly not a jazz standard, nor is it even one of Lee Morgan’s better known compositions. But this tribute to Billy Higgins, drummer on so many Blue Note sessions (including this one), is a fun, exuberant tune with a structure and tonality that are unique. I wouldn’t expect people to agree with me, but it’s my favorite tune on this great album.
The tune opens with the full ensemble riffing together and alternating with Billy doing improvised drum fills, sometimes for two bars apiece, sometimes one. For its part, the horn section is playing lines that involve both the whole tone scale and chromaticism, giving the intro a decided “outness.”
The tension created by the intro only continues and grows as Jackie McLean leads off the solos. Herbie Hancock plays sparsely, mostly a lot of whole and half notes, in his comping and leaves plenty of space as he supports Jackie, but the tonality he provides is anything but calming. There’s a real sense of foreboding and even danger as Herbie pursues a series of ascending, anxious altered dominant chords. McLean is right at home against this, as he plays a series of fractured, plaintive lines that sound like they could be from one of his own mid-’60s Blue Note sessions. And so it continues for a number of choruses.
But wait. What’s that? Mr. Morgan has cleverly thrown the listener a curveball and the unrelenting tension caused by all the dissonance finally resolves into…blues! And what a well-earned resolution it is. I imagine that a non-musician listener would find the change a little more subtle, noticing maybe that the harmonies/melodies of the tune suddenly made a little more sense to them, without knowing exactly why. (I once actually made it game in the car in which I asked Mrs. Jazzopath and Jazzopath, Jr. to try to identify the moment when it changes to a blues. Yes, I am a barrel of laughs on a road trip.) Jackie’s multiple trips down blues alley give way to a succession of solos by the rest of the sextet over the same out-then-in changes.
The first time I heard this tune, I remember wondering how Hank Mobley would approach his solo. He was known as a very lyrical, soulful player, and not a guy who would spend an extended time in the company of altered and diminished scales. But he does such a great job in the first (non-blues) half that it might be difficult to identify him at first. His self-described “round” tone is transformed into a more aggressive, almost “ragged” sound, perfect for the job at hand, and transitions seamlessly when he starts blowing the blues in classic Mobley fashion.
Is this tune a Classic®? Probably not. But it’s fun tune with six of the greatest players of all-time killing it. For me, that’s enough.