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Barbara Higbie, Scenes From Life

Always eager to explore new musical directions, multi-instrumentalist, Barbara Higbie introduces her next creative phase with a gorgeously cinematic new album, Scenes From Life, which is slated for release on A-Train Entertainment on October 21, 2014. Moving imperceptibly from composed to improvised passages, the music draws on her vast and vivid stylistic palette without ever settling into any one genre’s conventions.

As a Grammy-nominated composer, pianist, violinist, guitarist and
singer/songwriter, Higbie is a polymorphously creative artist who has collaborated with a dazzling array of musicians, from guitarist Carlos Santana and newgrass fiddle pioneer Darol Anger to soul diva Linda Tillery and bluegrass icon Laurie Lewis. Recording under her own name, she’s similarly expansive, possessing a treasure trove of rhythms and cadences encompassing West African grooves and jazz, Celtic, contemporary classical and American folk music.

Initially inspired by a film score assignment for a movie based on
Tucker Malarkey’s spiritually charged historical novel Resurrection (a film that’s yet to be made), Scenes From Life surges with emotionally vitality and psychological insight. Writing from the piano, her primary instrument throughout the album, Higbie is joined on half the album’s 13 tracks by the brilliant cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who has thrived in the decade and a half since leaving Kronos Quartet, and string wizard Aryeh Frankfurter (on violin, viola and cello), who also contributes five string arrangements.

“I had always wanted to do more film work, and when the movie didn’t happen I was left with all this music,” says Higbie, who lives near Berkeley, Calif. “Three or four of the tunes were really plot driven, but for this whole album I was thinking more cinematically.”

The emotional depth of the music flows from the passages in her own life over the past decade as a mother raising a child and a daughter coping with her parents’ aging. The deceptively lulling opening track “Irreducible Mind” sets the tone, with its incantatory rising and falling melodic line subtly augmented by the strings. “West on County D” is similarly evocative, an enticing soundscape redolent of rolling hills and the waning light of fall. Reflecting a mood of baleful sorrow, “Michael’s Song” represents Higbie at her most elegiac, with Jeanrenaud’s cello rising in an aching dialogue with her piano.

While much of her music plumbs mysterious inner depths, Higbie doesn’t ignore scenes of pleasure and joy. “Walking” is a jaunty solo piano piece while “Emma and Esi” brings to mind Vince Guaraldi’s playfully swinging themes for Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts specials. With its graceful use of the fundamental pulse known as the bell pattern “Ewe Tune” highlight’s Higbie’s gift for transposing West African rhythms into new contexts. And she expertly repurposes her captivating “Variations On A Happy Ending,” with Frankfurter’s finely calibrated string chart adding bittersweet textures to a piece originally conceived for solo piano.

The album closes with the mini-epic “Neptune,” an episodic journey
featuring the legendary pianist Katrina Krimsky (who also co-composed the piece with Higbie). By the end of the album, it’s clear that Higbie has distilled in her music the unavoidable vicissitudes and easy-to-overlook joys of life’s journey. After a sojourn this rich and rewarding she leaves little doubt that she’ll be sharing more scenes in the future.

“It feels like I stumbled on a new creative outlet, concert piano with
string section, improvising on my own compositions,” she says. “This is the sound and form I’m working with now and I feel it’s opened up a whole new creative period.”

Scenes From Life is the latest dispatch from a restless musical
explorer who has been at the forefront of several transformative
musical movements. Higbie’s first musical epiphany took place abroad. At the age of 13 she moved with her family from Indianapolis to Accra, the capital of the West African nation of Ghana, where her parents launched an organization to help Ghanaians start their own businesses. She absorbed a tremendous amount of music, particularly via studies with master drummer Mustafa Tetty Addy (as did her sister Molly Higbie, a founder of the popular Santa Cruz world beat band Pele Juju).

She moved to the Bay Area in the late 1970s to study music at Mills
College in Oakland, where she forged many key creative relationships. Kronos Quartet, for instance, started a residency at the college during her senior year, and her friendship with Jeanrenaud dates back to those heady days. They’ve collaborated several times over the years, including performances with Terry Riley and at Bang On A Can.

During a stint in Paris to study at the Sorbonne she connected with
jazz-inspired fiddler Darol Anger, who would soon gain widespread
recognition as a founding member of mandolin master David Grisman’s storied “dawg music” quintet. Anger put her in touch with Will Ackerman’s Palo Alto-based Windham Hill label, which was starting to make a name for itself as a savvy outlet for uncategorizable acoustic music. With her mix of folk, jazz, pop and West African influences, Higbie became a signature Windham Hill artist, debuting on the label at the age of 24 with 1982’s Tideline, an enthralling duo session with Anger.

Her breakout project was the acoustic all-star ensemble she co-led with Anger which was introduced on the band’s landmark 1985 Windham Hill album Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Mike Marshall, Andy Narell and Todd Phillips. Rechristened as Montreux, the band toured internationally with Michael Manring replacing Phillips and recorded two more albums for Windham Hill (1986’s Sign Language and 1988’s Let Them Say, all of which are sadly out of print) before Higbie embarked on a solo career.

As a solo artist, Higbie made an indelible impression with 1990’s Signs of Life (Windham Hill), a jazz and folk-infused project that put her breathtaking vocals in the foreground. She’s followed up intermittently with four other solo releases: 1996’s acclaimed I Surrender, 2001’s captivating solo piano session Variations on a Happy Ending and 2007’s sensational Alive in Berkeley (all on Slow Baby Records), which features a typically eclectic cast of collaborators including Teresa Trull, percussionist/vocalist Vicki Randle, saxophonist George Brooks, and Brazilian drummer Celso Alberti on a program focusing on her originals, but with memorable detours into the music of Bob Dylan and John Coltrane.

While her solo albums are rightly celebrated, Higbie is probably best
known as a collaborator who brings out the best in her partners. Over the years she’s recorded two popular albums with singer-songwriter Teresa Trull, 1983’s Unexpected (Olivia/Second Wave) and 1998’s Playtime (Slow Baby Records). Since the early 1990s she’s performed annually as part of a Winter Solstice tour that started as a Windham Hill showcase linked to the label’s hugely popular holiday albums. For more than a decade the tour has run independently featuring Higbie, Liz Story, and Lisa Lynne and other artists. Higbie’s most recent recording was 2012’s tour de force collaboration Hills to Hollers (Slow Baby Records) with Laurie Lewis and Linda Tillery. As a purely instrumental project Scenes From Life doesn’t mark a departure from her vocal work, but she’s discovered that her albums work best when she focuses on one
or the other.

“Singing continues to be a big part of my performing life, but it
doesn’t seem to work mixing vocals and instrumentals,” Higbie says.
“They’re two different things and I’m letting them be separate. We’ve got some Hills to Hollers concerts coming up in March, and it’s vocal ecstasy. I won’t let that go, that’s for sure.”

—Andy Gilbert

Pianist, Vocalist, Composer, Mutli-Instrumentalist