This is an English version of Sebastian’s regular “London Column” from the current issue (Nov-Dec 2020) of the German Magazine JAZZTHETIK, just out today, 28 October 2020:
Surprises are normal for jazz, but here’s an unusual one: the Judith O’Higgins whose new album “His ‘n’ Hers” (Ubuntu/Orchard), in which she plays tenor saxophone alongside her husband Dave…is one and the same person as Judith O’Higgins the forensic pathologist who has told her extraordinary life-story in depth in a fascinating book “Spuren des Todes” (Fischer Verlag, 2013)
She grew up as Judith Schröer in Lippstadt. She has happy memories of going to gigs as a teenager in the clubs in the surrounding area and hearing English bands like Loose Tubes and Itchy Fingers. She didn’t take up the saxophone until she was sixteen but progress was rapid. As a young medical student she joined the University Big Band in Münster, run by trumpeter Bob Lanese, for three decades lead trumpet with James Last. “He became my mentor, and it was he who planted the idea in my mind of moving away from Münster and to give Hamburg a try.” Once in Hamburg, and while doing a doctorate, she played in Lanese’s Downtown Big Band, sometimes alongside top saxophone players from NDR like Lutz Büchner, and once even the great Herb Geller. And there was more jazz in her life too: she lived in the Gärtnerstraße immediately above the Birdland club. “It was like my living room!”
Judith’s double life of forensic pathologist and saxophonist took a very different turn in 2005. She was working in Thailand as part of the team with the harrowing task of identifying the thousands of victims in the tragic aftermath of the tsunami. She wanted a change and was starting to look at jobs in New Zealand, when into her inbox popped an email from a saxophonist friend whom she had known previously as a member of Itchy Fingers, Dave O’Higgins. “And the rest is history,” she smiles. She moved to the UK in 2007, was married to Dave in 2009, has adapted her ways of working to the totally different structures of forensic pathology in the UK.
The new album evokes memories of tenor pairings of the past like Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin. And the sessions? “We had fixed a date to record in April but through my work I could see how quickly the virus was taking hold and that a lockdown was imminent any day. What we needed was to get everything ready. And in the end we recorded just in time, on 21 March.” The sessions were against a deadline but what the album expresses is joy. And love. Which is perhaps the least surprising thing in this whole story.