Album review

O’Higgins & Luft – ‘Pluto’

O’Higgins & Luft – Pluto

(Ubuntu Music – UBU0126. CD Review by Graham Spry)

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In 2019, during what now seems a very different age and a long time ago before the pandemic, tenor saxophonist Dave O’Higgins and then relative newcomer guitarist Rob Luft recorded an album of songs written by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk they called, appropriately, O’Higgins & Luft Play Monk & Trane (link to review of album launch below). Since then, Luft has released a second album on Edition Records, Life is a Dancer, and recorded Lost Ships with Elina Duni on ECM Records—arguably one of the best albums of the last few years—but the leaders of the O’Higgins & Luft band continue to perform as co-equals on their latest album, Pluto.

Whereas their first album was very much what its title described, all but two of thesongs on Pluto are originals by O’Higgins and Luft. The drummer on both albums is Rod Youngs whose long career has included working with Barb Jungr, the sadly missed Gil Scott Heron and various members of Tomorrow’s Warriors. The O’Higgins & Luft band is completed by Misha Mullov-Abbado on bass and Ross Stanley on piano: both much sought-after sidemen in the current London jazz scene.

It is immediately apparent that this was a recording date where the musicians were completely comfortable with one another. The album’s sleeve notes explain that the music was recorded in a single afternoon at Brixton’s JVC studios where most tunes were first takes with no overdubs. This must partly be because the material had been exhaustively rehearsed on the band’s 40-plus date tour in 2019, but there is no sense that the music’s freshness has suffered from the intervening pandemic.

The album opens with Pluto, which is one of five tunes composed by Dave O’Higgins, and most likely chosen as the title track more for its infectious swing than by any association with the mini-planet whose picture graces the album cover. The mood changes on South Wind, the first of Rob Luft’s two compositions: a relatively wistful tune that gives space for Luft’s expressive guitar. Luft’s other tune, Gayetski, is another lilting tune that betrays the guitarist’s bias towards sweet melodies and may also be a tribute to Stan Getz’s given name.

The titles of the O’Higgins compositions are perfect for tunes that evolved during a long tour. Everything’s Under Control is an accurate description of a band working together effortlessly with no apparent strain. Vague Recollection is one of those tunes that listeners might at first believe they’ve heard before. Ballad For Barry is evidence that Luft isn’t the only composer on the album with a feel for melody and restraint. The closing track, One For The Six, illustrates how much O’Higgins has learnt from Monk and is the tune that brings the album to a satisfying conclusion.

Continuing the theme of the last album, Pluto includes two tunes composed by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. The Coltrane track is Giant Steps GTI, a tune which despite its familiarity remains a challenge for any lead instrument but both O’Higgins and Luft make the tune their own and, as the slightly revised title suggests, have added extra velocity to an already pacey original. The Monk tune chosen is Four in One, a tune from Monk’s early years with Blue Note records and, unlike the Monk tunes played on the band’s first album, extensively features the piano as well as a glorious double bass solo from Mullov-Abbado.

There is no doubt that on this record the two leaders of the O’Higgins and Luft band are principally inspired by the great jazz of the classic Blue Note years. This is a splendid tribute to its vibrant energy and a delightful treat for listeners who believe this period of music is still worth celebrating despite the amazing music of the intervening decades.

The album was launched at the Pizza Express during the 2022 EFG London Jazz Festival, and the band has just played in Brighton. The music on Pluto would be best enjoyed live and tour dates will be listed HERE

LINKS: Review of the album launch for O’Higgins and Luft play Monk and Trane

Buy Pluto from Presto Music

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