Terence Higgins & Swampgrease - In The Bywater

Terence Higgins, internationally known as drummer for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, is as well versed in the churning New Orleans funk style as any man can be. Born and raised in NOLA, Higgins has performed with everyone from Widespread Panic to Dr. John to Norah Jones, and has even gained his own set of peers in other drummers such as Brian Blade, Russell Batiste Jr., and Stanton Moore. Higgins appears on dozens of albums, but with his first “solo” CD his own ideas have become a force to be reckoned with.
In The Bywater is named after the neighborhood in which Higgins grew up, one of the most historic in New Orleans. Just down the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, Bywater's colorful, diverse history seeps through into the sounds contained on the disc. But with that history comes a marked modern slant full of synthetic sounds and forward-thinking musical interplay. Higgins is joined by many of his NOLA compatriots here, including sibling keyboard and sax players (Andy and Scott) with the impossibly Cajun surname of Bourgeois. Also featured on the album are DDBB guitar craftsman Jamie McLean, trombonist Sammy Williams, bassist Calvin Turner (Jason Crosby, Marc Broussard), and noted funk guitarist Reynard Poche. Together they display the stuff that makes New Orleans music not only irresistible, but a worldwide curiosity and essential cultural edifice.

"Terrestrial Landing" gets the disc hopping, with a blast-off of funk and synthesizers that give way to the neck-breaking funk of "Gotta Get Swamp Jiggy". Poche's vocoder provides digital vocals to get the track going while Higgins' seems to have at least four arms, finding a beat at every nook of the song's loose groove. Williams dazzles with a gliding, creative trombone solo, and Bourgeois serves up a dirty clavinet solo. This song just floors you with hard-hitting breaks and distorted, teeth-clenching melodies interspersed with tricky jazz passages.

The title track shuffles off via a neo-traditional rhythm from Higgins and caterwauling slide guitar from McLean. This is an electrified brass parade through the JazzFest crowd on a 100-degree day at the Fairgrounds, sweaty and sauntering. There's no groove that the soloists on this album can't handle, as they lace Higgins' second-line-influenced beats with all kinds of musical chatter. Turner achieves the elusive goal of having the bass be just that...the "base". Only when the listener truly needs a reference point does the bass bubble up through the foundation, and Turner manages to provide the perfect layer every time. "Barber Shop" is a concrete old-school funk jam that is spiced with joyful melodica. If Higgins was trying to provoke images of Afros being neatly trimmed in a downtown barbershop during the 1970's, he succeeded! Wah-wah and a strolling, steady beat make this a highly visual instrumental. This is The Meters on a perfect Saturday afternoon in the city. Then it picks up steam and careens into a dance-jazz tune with a sprightly sax solo before disintegrating into a big, noisy rock ending.

The carefully constructed "100mg." Is one of the more moderately paced tunes on the disc, and each band member has an equal voice here. Somehow each instrument manages to pop into the spaces left by the others, creating a roiling circus of funk. "Catharsis" is a smooth ride with synth-flutes and resounding organ backdrops. The band's propensity for tight jazz/funk breaks and melodies is on high volume here, as this song skips between cocktail jazz and roughneck funk.

The disc ends with the improvised madness of "Past Neptune", which starts as a free-association jam but eventually gains a makeshift theme. It is at this point of the listen that you realize how enjoyable of a ride this album is. The whole smorgasbord of virtuostic playing comes back to the listener during this moment of relaxation. The patience, dedication, and skill displayed by Swampgrease are what sets In The Bywater apart from the multitudes of other fusion/funk outfits.

--Bryan Rodgers