Dave O'Higgins - Saxophone


“I started out listening to my sister’s Elvis Presley records,” says O’Higgins. “Then at school, when I had the opportunity to learn an instrument, I decided that I wanted to play the loudest instrument there was, so I borrowed the school trumpet and had a go on that. I remember it used to smell horrible when I got it out of the case.” 

Active ImageThe trumpet was a bit complicated for a young child to master however, so he started on the drums when he was nine. “I used the school drum kit – a grey Premier with some really thin cymbals.” When he was 11, his father bought him a basic four piece Premier ‘rock’ kit. “I remember that massive 22-inch bass drum – I wasn’t into jazz at that time. Then I got this urge to play the piano, but my teacher only allowed me to play classical music and of course I wanted to play everything but classical music!” This didn’t stop O’Higgins passing his Grade 8 at just 13. “That’s when I stopped – there was nowhere else to go.” The drumming however continued, and by the age of 12 he had a regular Sunday night spot backing cabaret with an organist at the local working men’s club.

O’Higgins took up the saxophone at 16 – but what had inspired him to make the move? “The first thing that got me excited about the sax was listening to Kind of Blue that a friend of mine played me. Then he went on to lend me every Charlie Parker record and every Miles Davis record – he had the lot. In fact every conceivable Dial and Spotlite record. I made copies of all of them on cassette tape. I was also listening to funky jazz stuff like Grover Washington and the Crusaders. And the first saxophone solo that I ever transcribed was Wilton Felder’s on the track ‘Street Life’.”

Higgins first sax was an alto – a Guban. “It belonged to the college of FE that I was at. It was some sort of East German instrument, absolutely horrible.” So he decided to use all the money that he was making playing the drums, to buy himself a decent saxophone. “I ended up buying a Yamaha tenor.” Finishing his studies at the college of FE, O’Higgins decided to ‘take a year out’. “I was gigging on the drums, doing a bit of work and practising like crazy on that saxophone.”

At the end of the year, he came down to London to read music at the City University. “I got a place as a saxophonist – and I left my drums back in Derby.” He continues. “It was basically an academic course with very little practical work – even though I was doing a performance major. And there was no jazz involved at all.” However, O’Higgins secured himself a slot in NYJO and formed a quartet with bassist Alec Dankworth. This led to studio work and opportunities to play with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine. He was also asked to join an Icelandic jazz/funk band called Mezzo Forte. “So I decided to drop out of Uni,” as he says, “you don’t get these sort of breaks every day.”

So what instruments was he playing? O’Higgins has had a few! “I started with a Yamaha 62 Tenor and an old Yanigasawa soprano. That soon got changed to a Yamaha which I remember well, as it was one of the instruments that I really regret selling, because I think it was the best all round soprano that I ever had. When I joined NYJO I had to learn the flute – the usual double. So I bought a Miyanawa open holed model. I also got into Selmer Mk6s pretty soon. My first was a 1963 tenor which I traded in for the Yamaha 62 and I soon swapped the Yamaha soprano, first for a Selmer Series 3 – which I didn’t like the sound of and then for a silver plated Selmer Super 80 series 1. But I never really got on with that horn either. So I replaced it with a Mk 6 which I still have and still play and it’s the best sounding soprano that I have ever had. It’s a tricky instrument to play and the tuning takes some coaxing – it certainly doesn’t play like the Yamaha – but it does have that great sound.”

Eventually O’Higgins also traded in the ‘63 Tenor. “One time when I was in New York, I went over to Roberto’s and there was Joe Henderson’s 1957 Mk6 tenor – I couldn’t let that go!” Currently O’Higgins is playing a 1972 Mk6 tenor, “which I really enjoy playing.” He has also played a Conn ‘crossbar’ tenor which he loved the sound of, “but my fingers hurt after playing it for an hour or so.” The same problem occurred with a Conn ‘crossbar’ baritone. “It had a great sound but again, it fucked up my fingers.” O’Higgins’ current baritone is a Yamaha, “which I can quite categorically say is the best baritone that I have ever played in my life. It sounds good, it plays perfectly and the mechanics of it are an absolute dream.”

  “I guess I use the classic trio as far as mouthpieces are concerned – metal links on tenors, Rubber Meyers on altos and Classic Selmers on sopranos. The tenor has a metal ‘Florida’ Link 7 star from the late-50s – early 60s with USA stamped on the shank. The alto has a Meyer 5N and the Soprano has a Selmer S80 hard rubber mouthpiece with an E opening. The baritone has a modern metal Link 7.” O’Higgins continues. “I use Rico Jazz Select 3M filed reeds, because I think filed speak a bit more readily than the unfiled ones when you first put them on.” Having had so many various saxophones, what might O’Higgins consider to be his greatest indulgence? “I suppose my greatest saxophone indulgence was to trade in my Yamaha alto (which I didn’t play very much) for Tony Coe’s Mk6 – which was a mint mid-60s. It’s a great sounding horn. As I don’t play alto that much, I feel a little spoilt.”

Interview - David Gallant