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Smoke Signal by Dawan Muhammad / Billy Higgins Sextet

Smoke Signal is a very pleasant hard bop date recorded in LA 12 years ago by six musicians associated with the World Stage, a performance gallery in the city's Leimert Park neighborhood. The date was conceived of and initially released as a tribute to the late Art Blakey, but with Sextet co-leader (and World Stage co-founder) Billy Higgins having since passed as well, the set has been reissued as a dedication to both great drummers. Joining Higgins are saxophonist Dawan Muhammad, the wonderful LA-by-way-of-Detroit trombonist Phil Ranelin, James "Smitty" Smith on trumpet and flugelhorn, pianist Greg Kirstin and Jesse "Yusef" Murphy on bass.

The set opens with a hard driving bop number by Muhammad entitled "LifeForce," featuring just the sort of riff that Blakey would've loved. A version of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" features some tender playing by Muhammad on flute. The album's seven tracks are about evenly divided between the saxophonist's originals and standards. "In the Hood," co-written with Murphy, was the original title track, while the song that titles this issue seems named in part after the American Indian-style lick that opens and closes it, recalling the original Blakey/Clifford Brown band.Everyone plays well here; Muhammad plays with intensity and grace on sax and flute, Ranelin displays his consummate skill on the trombone and, of course, it is always a treat to hear the infectious enthusiasm of Billy Higgins behind the drum kit. Anyone who ever saw him will be cheered to hear it again here.

Smoke Signal is a very good name for this collection. A smoke signal is a communication, after all, and in jazz smoke signals a certain intimacy of mood. If, upon next release, the name is to be changed again, they could do worse than to pick the title of the penultimate track, "Just Friends." The group serves the old warhorse up warmly, with some really nice crosstalk from Ranelin, Muhammad and Smith in the head part. While a few of the tracks smolder a bit more intensely, "Just Friends" does typify the camaraderie of the players assemble in the Sextet.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dawan Muhammad / Billy Higgins Sextet
  • CD Title: Smoke Signal
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Reissue Original Release: 1994
  • Record Label: LifeForcejazz Records
  • Rating: Four Stars
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