Though he wins his share of games, he spends a lot of time writing music. "Sometimes I get on their nerves because I'll sit down all day," Higgins says. "I'll pop an energy drink and I'll sit behind the keyboard and drum machine -- one time for a straight month I did it every day all day." The new album, In the Bywater (Gris Gris Bag), by Terence Higgins & Swampgrease is the funky product of those marathon writing sessions.
Calling from the tour bus on the road to Mammoth Lake after sharing a bill at the Hollywood Bowl with the Neville Brothers and Terence Blanchard, Higgins says his album was more than a year in the making. "When I recorded this record, it was during Jazz Fest not last year, but the year before that," Higgins says. "I was playing every night with the Dozen at TwiRoPa, and everybody else in the band had things to do so we had to cut a song, cats would leave to make gigs, come back and we'd start cutting again. It was hectic."
The last track, "Beyond Neptune," was recorded at the last minute. "We were running out of time before the bass player (Calvin Turner) had to leave, so I said, Let's drop this last track.' It was one take. Bam!" Higgins says. The track is the most obvious showcase for Higgins' jazz chops, rolling around the kit in what seems like a slightly restrained free jazz piece. In fact, Billy Cobham inspired the track. "The Cobham stuff, the Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff, Jean-Luc Ponty -- that had a big impact on my early development," Higgins recalls. "I wanted to give homage to that.
"I'm a big fusion head. I dug that kind of music and that's what I was into growing up," he says, and while In the Bywater is funkier than a lot of jazz/funk fusion, keyboard player Andy Bourgeois' Moog-like sounds do recall the '70s. "I wanted to use those sounds in a modern-day atmosphere," Higgins says. Bourgeois used a Yamaha Motif, a contemporary synthesizer, but more out of necessity than desire. "I wanted to use a Moog and '70s sounds, but we didn't have access to them, so we went with what we had. At one time I thought I was getting too synth-y, but we rolled with it."
"Gotta Get Swamp Jiggy," the album's second track (after a short overture), starts with a rack tom drum roll into a loose, funky go-go groove. "It's influenced by Chuck Brown," Higgins says, referring to the Washington, D.C., artist thought of by many as the father of go-go with whom the Dirty Dozen often shared bills. The groove, Higgins contends, "is like a D.C. second line; it's totally a cultural thing. Same kind of party thing."
Besides the drum and bass pattern, go-go's sense of fun is evoked by guitarist Renard Poché's talk box. "When Renard came in, I wanted some vocal thing to happen and he had the talk box so I said, Drop this right here!'"
Recording during Jazz Fest affected more than just the final tracks. The band members -- Poché, Turner, Andy Bourgeois, Scott Bourgeois on alto sax, Jamie McLean from the Dirty Dozen on guitar and Sammie Williams on trombone -- were so busy that even rehearsals happened in a catch-as-catch-can fashion. "We had rehearsed a few times before the sessions, but a month passed before we got in the studio, so everybody kind of retained the rehearsal stuff," Higgins says. "My ideas were already on tape, so when I presented it to the band, I said do what you do. This is the idea; what are you hearing? That made it a group effort."
Higgins had planned to feature his drums more, and wanted to provide more solos, but things didn't work out. "The tunes weren't developed for that, and I didn't have time to work it out. I went into the studio whipped." Besides giving Higgins a chance to explore musical ideas that don't fit the Dirty Dozen and to see a project through from beginning to end, Swampgrease and In the Bywater should raise Higgins' profile in New Orleans. "At the beginning of this year, I said to myself, 'I need to do more. I want more visibility.' I've been playing New Orleans since at least the late '80s and people still don't recognize who is Terence Higgins."