Dave OHiggins Interview

From performing with Frank Sinatra to touring the USA with Darius Brubeck, Dave is one of the busiest and most successful sax players to come out of the UK.   I caught up with Dave to have a chat about his approach to learning saxophone and find out more about his recent recording project.

NM: How did your journey with saxophone start Dave?

DO: Well I actually started off playing drums, and as a I teenager was working with lots of function bands in the Derby area. I was always attracted to the saxophone so I started to bend the ears of various players I was working with. I wanted to find out what they were listening to.

I myself was listening to lots of rock music as a teenager. I guess I came into music when I discovered Led Zeppelin – they were my favourite band then. Reading up on the band members though I found that they all had a common interest in jazz-related music. They were into John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, guys like that.

So I started to check out Coltrane and Miles Davis records and hanging out with older players in my area that had good jazz record collections. They were really encouraging to me actually as a young musician trying to broaden his horizons a bit.

NM: So this was about 14 or 15 years old?

DO: Yeah. Actually I had got to a pretty good level on drums by then. My family thought that getting into music might be a rotten idea, but they couldn’t really argue with the fact that as a teenager I was working every Friday and Saturday night. And making some money! My parents were astonished. So I saved up for a saxophone for myself and made the switch.

NM: That’s really interesting because most sax players start on sax or clarinet. I’ll bet though that starting on drums really helped with your approach to feel and time.

DO: Absolutely. It’s always a source of irritation to drummers when I show them how I want things to be played!

NM: So what was your first inspiration as a new sax player?

DO: Well that was an exciting time in music. There were lots of “crossover” bands, fusion bands around then. It wasn’t long after Miles had started to do his electric stuff. There was the Brecker Brothers and Billy Cobham’s band, The Mahavishnu Orchestra. So I kind of came to jazz a bit backwards listening to all that stuff.

It did become apparent to me though, talking to the older musicians, that the only way to learn the music properly was to get into the core of the vocabulary. So I took those warnings very much to heart and really investigated a bunch of older players like Charlie Parker.

NM: Did you start on alto or tenor?

DO: I did start on alto because I had been able to borrow one from my college, but as soon as I bought my own sax, it was a tenor.

NM: Of all the guys you were checking out back then, who was it that really lit your fire?

DO: There were probably three. One was Wilton Felder’s solo on “Street Life”. I remember I was literally trying to copy that the day I got my tenor. I didn’t have the chops for it back then but I had a go!

Another was John Coltrane on “Kind of Blue”. I was particularly drawn to his intensity and the passion he played with. And the other thing was Jan Garbarek on Keith Jarrett’s albums “My Song” and “Belonging”.

Interestingly enough, I got to play “Street Life” with Randy Crawford and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican many years later. I was the guest soloist and was asked to just come in and play that solo. It was a real joy to do, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I heard the LSO playing that beautiful string introduction with me required to play the Wilton Felder sax lines. Of course I was well up for it!

NM: When you were looking at older players, where did you start? Was it back with Lester Young?

DO: Well actually I really started at Charlie Parker but I did check out loads of players that were heavily inspired by Lester Young, guys like Wardell Gray, Dexter Young and Don Byas. Really the start of my research was with the bop players like Parker.

I went on a mission to learn every Parker tune. At the time there were no Fake Books available so I transcribed every Parker head I could find. I had a book of them, all carefully written out in ink. Very obsessive compulsive!

NM: Was transcribing always a big part of your learning?

DO: Yes. I suppose I was lucky because I had learned drums, and piano too, so I was already quite musically literate when I first got my sax. When I was checking out that Wilton Felder solo I was quite capable of writing it out although I couldn’t yet play it.

I had already done a lot of drum transcriptions by that stage of guys like Steve Gadd and Billy Cobham. So I was used to working out how to write rhythms and painstakingly listening to the record over and over. I used to wear them out!

NM: Did you find writing out transcriptions worked better than doing it aurally?

DO: Well it did for me but I think everyone is different. I really admire people who can learn something accurately and memorise it by first learning to sing it. For me I tend to work better the other way around. I do sing at the start to get a line but then I need to write it down just so I can remember it all.

I tend to learn sections of solos by heart rather than entire solos.

I do often transcribe just sections or phrases too. I have books of thousands of them! I like to transcribe things that I think are really good learning tools rather than just great solos.

Dave O'Higgins with Alan Barnes

Dave with Alan Barnes

NM: You’ve been a really busy guy over the years and have organised so many great projects. Was running your own groups always an important thing for you?

DO: Yes, well it’s really a necessary thing to do. I think you need to challenge yourself and you have to provide the public with something that will hopefully

keep them interested in what you’re up to. It takes a lot of energy to keep going and I wouldn’t necessarily think of myself as a great or natural organiser, but it’s just been something I’ve had to do in order to get stuff happening. In order to do what you want to do, you have to become a good organiser.

I have seen lots of great musicians get caught up doing nice gigs as sidemen for the best part of their career. I really made a decision to not do many sideman projects unless I had a lot of creative input in it.

NM: You have done some interesting sideman projects though, even a bunch of pop things.

DO: Yes, and I still do some of that. I’ve made some great friends from projects in the more commercial world. I’m writing some stuff with Mark Reilly from Matt Bianco at the moment for a jazzy project he’s doing.

NM: You sound like a pretty pragmatic, organised kind of guy Dave. Do you have lots of structure with your practice routine?

DO: One of my big mantras is to keep changing it. So, part of my routine is that I don’t have a routine. I go through phases of doing certain things. Recently I’ve gone through a period of just learning loads of standards that I didn’t know.

It’s been the same in a gig situation. If someone calls a tune I don’t know, I ask them what the form is, then challenge myself to learn it as we go. Then, after the gig I go home and really pull it apart.

I like to work out the tune on piano from listening to a vocal version, then work out a couple different versions of the changes that I like. Then I try to distill the tune down to it’s simplest elements, and then play it all day long!

I’ve got a list of a couple hundred tunes that I’ve done over the last couple months.

NM: What about if you have a really limited amount of time, what’s the one thing you will go to with your practice?

DO: It depends on what gigs I’m doing at the time. Most of my practice comes out of what I feel I need to practice from my self evaluation after gigs. I spend a lot of time messing around with my sound. I’m a fiddler and I’m really conscious of my tone production, my embouchure, the way I’m blowing and my articulation. So I tend to work on quite specific areas to develop that.

I like to do it in the form of technical exercises. So sometimes I just work really hard on the low register articulation. Or on staccato, or on altissimo. Every time I work on technical exercises though, I write one for myself. I make up my own scales from things I like the sound of. I’ll combine different triads or use upper structures from chords. I then put the scales through all sorts of configurations.

The inspiration for lots of these come from things I have transcribed. Mostly from guys with killer chops like Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Brecker or perhaps even melodic players like Hank Mobley or Dexter Gordon.

Dave O'Higgins album Blues and the Abstract Truth

NM: I’m excited to hear your new Big Band project Dave. How did it come about?

DO: My wife Judith and I run a studio at our house. It’s one of the things we did when we got married rather than spend a lot of money on a honeymoon. I had always been talking about creating a small recording studio where I could record jazz properly. So that means everyone in the same room at the same time.

Judith and I have got heavily into the recording process so when we came up with the idea for this new big band project, we wanted to record it in a very natural way. We wanted everyone in the same room without headphones – the way big bands were traditionally recorded.

My favourite period for Big Bands was the early 1960s when recordings like Quincy Jones’ The Quintessence and Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth were made. That’s the sound we wanted.

The idea for the Abstract Truth Big Band really come from a love of Oliver Nelson’s album. It was such an amazing mix of great players and incredible arrangements, which I think still sounds fresh even fifty four years later.

We got in touch with Jörg Achim Keller who is the musical director of the NDR – the North German Radio Band. He’s written arrangements for everyone from Joe Zawinul to the Brecker Brothers and Chet Baker. He’s one of the world’s great arrangers.

Dave O'Higgins recording at Abbey Road Studios

Recording at the famous Abbey Road studios.

Jörg rearranged the entire Blues and the Abstract Truth album for Big Band using a load of additional material in the style of Oliver Nelson who is a huge hero for him. The arrangements were spectacular.

Fortunately we were able to set up a session over two days at Abbey Road with the absolute best line-up of our favourite British jazz players to record them.

The end result is a fresh and new but idiomatically respectful reinterpretation of the original Oliver Nelson album. And recorded fantastically at Abbey Road. We’re really proud of it.


Dave’s Gear

Tenor: Conn 10m Ladyface 1938 which has been customised by Steve Crow to resemble a Selmer Mk 6 as much as possible without moving any tone holes.  New Selmer keys have been put on, contrary to a vicious rumour going about that they were the keys from my old Mk 6!

Mouthpiece: 10mfan Robusto 8


Zimberoff Hollywood 8, restored beautifully to.112 by Marin Spivak

More info:

Check out Dave’s website for tour dates and to get the album: www.daveohiggins.com

All pics from Abbey Road: © Christine Ongsiek, Imageplotter

Everything else: © Judith O’Higgins

Now checkout this:

Download Dave’s ii-V7 pattern pdf

%d bloggers like this: