Jimmie Highsmith Jr.'s ninth release, "Indigo Chronicles Chocolate Brown Eyes," finds the Rochester saxophonist channeling interpretations of love, loss, and life through his instrument. In particular, through an alto sax he calls "Indigo."
"I was a nerdy kid with no friends and no girlfriends," Highsmith says. "My saxophone was my first girlfriend. My saxophones are like girlfriends to me. The alto sax is named Indigo, and my soprano is named Monique. We definitely have a relationship; my wife understands that."
In order to create what Highsmith wants to say musically, it requires a specific tone or sound that certain horns present.
"This album primarily features Indigo," he says. "So it's pretty much a story told musically through Indigo's eyes. Each horn has its own sound, its own voice. And when you're trying to catch a certain emotion, the story requires a specific voice and to use the horns appropriately."
Born and raised in Rochester, Highsmith is known the world over, having rubbed elbows and traded licks on stage with artists like Alicia Keys, Victor Wooten, and Wynton Marsalis. And his album "The Anthology of Sound" was nominated for a Grammy.
On "Indigo Chronicles Chocolate Brown Eyes," Highsmith, among other things, addresses the heartbreaking personal loss of two family members: his mother-in-law ("Chocolate Brown Eyes") and his uncle, Alton ("For Alton"), as well as his dear friend and WDKX radio personality Tony Boler ("Bolertime"). But the album isn't at all a funeral march. Highsmith is a beguiling talent playing between the spaces of smooth jazz and exploratory bop. It's not a bumpy ride necessarily, but you better hold on.
Watching this 49-year-old cat squeeze the tears and joy out of his sax (Monique or Indigo) is a thrill. His band — David Labman on keys, drummer Bruce Pitts, and bassist Mark Terranova — is so deep in the pocket you'd half expect them to come off the bandstand wearing a layer of lint. The rhythm section is just that: a giant rhythm section that chugs and plugs as Highsmith releases a smooth, fluttering flurry of notes, sending them on a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.
"It's a symbiotic relationship," Highsmith says. "We've been together about two years now, me and this band. We have a set list most of the time, but we don't rehearse that much because of our busy schedules. We are so intuitive of one another — ideas and emotions that come out naturally. It's a collective. It comes down to the drummer: he knows what is going to happen, he knows how I want it to feel and just runs with it."
When Highsmith writes he's slow to tell the band what he wants; he's never been a dictator declaring, "I want it my way."
"I have a blueprint, and try to give the guys room to be creative," he says. "Their input is very important to me. Anything can inspire me, maybe an emotion or a person. It could be a smell. It could be a situation. There's no one recipe for me when writing a song."
It's easy to watch Highsmith's smooth jive on stage, and it makes sense when he lists artists like Chopin, Grover Washington Jr., John Coltrane, Phil Woods, and Herbie Hancock as influences. What isn't easy to grasp is the fact that this isn't his first choice.
"As much as I like playing music, it is not my preferred career field. If I'd had my choice in life I'd be a climatologist. I'm a big science geek — I love weather patterns — physics in particular. I'm a big nerd. I'm also a walking contradiction. I'm a kid, a black kid, who grew up in the city loving country music. I like rock 'n' roll, too. And I've got a hidden personality that plays metal bass like Metallica."
With "Indigo Chronicles Chocolate Brown Eyes" hitting the street recently, there will be plenty of opportunities to catch the man live. Not out of town too much these days, though.
"I like to be here with my family," Highsmith says. "I have grandchildren, and now I'm Pop-Pop."