L.A. Studio Legends: Dan Higgins

Legendary saxophonist and woodwind specialist talks his career as studio musician in Los Angeles, from his early days as session player to his collaborations with Maestro John Williams, including the stunning alto saxophone solos he performed on the score for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can

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Saxophonist and woodwind specialist Dan Higgins is unquestionably one of the most talented session musicians on the planet and also highly respected among his peers. His stunning skills both as saxophonist and woodwind player on several instruments (including clarinet and flute) have been appreciated by a wide variety of composers and musicians with whom Higgins collaborated throughout his amazing career. He has performed in the woodwind section on several John Williams‘ film scores since the mid-1990s, but he’s first and foremost remembered for the stunning alto saxophone solos he recorded on the brilliant score Maestro Williams composed in 2002 for the film Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks.

John Williams and Dan Higgins (photo courtesy of Dan Higgins, used under permission)

Born in Boston, MA, in 1955, Dan Higgins first distinguished himself as an outstanding saxophonist while attending University of North Texas. He played lead alto sax in the 1 O’Clock Lab Band and can be heard on Lab 76 and Lab 77. He taught both saxophone and improvisation and was a member of the 1976 State Department tour to Russia. After moving to Los Angeles, Dan started to work as a freelance studio musician, mostly on record dates, but also on many recordings for television shows, including playing on live shows and specials, following the footsteps of other great saxophone players like Gene Cipriano, Ronnie Lang and Plas Johnson. As session musician, he has worked with bands and jazz artists such as Phil Woods, Louis Bellson, Dave Grusin, Eddie Daniels, Gerry Mulligan, Stanley Clarke, Arturo Sandoval and George Duke. He can be heard on jazz albums with Quincy Jones, Arturo Sandoval, Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Nestico, and Pat Williams among others. Dan contributed two arrangements on the 2013 Grammy Award-winning album Dear Diz by Arturo Sandoval. Dan was a part of the Barbra Streisand Las Vegas New Year’s Eve Concerts 1994 and 1999 and the following U.S. tours.

Dan Higgins recording an alto sax solo in studio (photo courtesy of Dan Higgins, used under permission)

As a Los Angeles-based professional and a member of the “Jerry Hey Horn Section,” Dan has recorded with an amazing array of pop, rock and jazz artists including Frank Sinatra, Phil Collins, Cher, Natalie Cole, Randy Newman, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Ringo Starr, Al Jarreau, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Brian Wilson, Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Burt Bacharach, John Mayer, Rod Stewart, George Benson, Neil Young, just to name a few. He is also a featured soloist on numerous albums including Quincy Jones’s Basie and Beyond, Gordon Goodwin’s Swinging for the Fences and Wayne Bergeron’s You Call this a Living.

“Quintessence” by Quincy Jones, performed by Count Basie with the Quincy Jones/Sammy Nestico Orchestra, featuring a stunning saxophone solo by Dan Higgins

His career as studio musician for the film and television industry is as much impressive: Dan has worked on 700+ motion picture scores and is a featured saxophone soloist on many great films. Such notable composers as John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Marc Shaiman, Randy Newman, David Newman and Alexandre Desplat have called on Dan to play their film scores—he can be heard playing saxophone solos on Catch Me If You Can (2002, by John Williams), Awakenings (1990, by Randy Newman), Sleepless in Seattle (1993, by Marc Shaiman), Benny & Joon (1993, by Rachel Portman), A Bug’s Life (1998, by Randy Newman), What Women Want (2000, by Alan Silvestri), Mouse Hunt (2002, by Alan Silvestri), Sideways (2004, by Rolfe Kent), The Notebook (2004, by Aaron Zigman) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, by Alexandre Desplat). He also performed on many other memorable film scores including Chicago, The Polar Express, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Emperor’s New Groove, Toy Story, The Bodyguard, Liar Liar, City Slickers, Father of the Bride, Pretty Woman and Batman Forever. Dan has also recorded on many television scores, including top tv shows such as The Simpsons (Dan is the solo alto saxophone voice of Bleeding Gums Murphy), and also performed on live shows such as The Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammy Awards, SAG Awards, and People’s Choice Awards.

Dan Higgins performing in the saxophone section on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, music by Alexandre Desplat; photo courtesy of scoringsessions.com)

Dan has worked extensively with John Williams for more than 25 years. His first collaboration was playing alto saxophone on a few “period music” source pieces that Williams arranged as part of the musical score for Schindler’s List (1993). Dan also performed saxophone and woodwinds on Sabrina (1995), Seven Years In Tibet (1997) and The Patriot (2000). However, the big breakthrough came in 2002, when the Maestro called upon Dan’s talents as soloist on alto saxophone for the score to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. The film is based on the real-life story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a young boy who performed successful cons worth millions of dollars by posing as an airline pilot, doctor and prosecutor. The 1960s setting inspired composer John Williams to go back to one of his roots and revisit his early days as a jazzman (during the 1950s and early 60s, he was an accomplished jazz pianist and also arranged a lot for big bands), writing a score that could evoke “an impressionistic memoir of the progressive jazz movement that was then so popular”, as he said in 2003. The alto saxophone becomes the principal voice on the score and accompanies the main character’s “escapades” in lively jazz-influenced pieces, but also the nostalgic relationship with his father through wistful melodic material. The music is built around a simple musical idea, a sort of idée fixe that brilliantly illustrates the cat-and-mouse chase between Abagnale and FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), as heard in the lovely 1960s-inspired animated opening title sequence. The alto saxophone is given a prominent soloist role (usually doubled by the vibraphone in its sinuous, virtuosic lines) and Dan Higgins really shines in it.

The opening title sequence of ‘Catch Me If You Can’, featuring the jazzy score by John Williams with alto saxophone solo by Dan Higgins

Over the decades we’ve had a number of truly inspired masters of the alto saxophone, and Dan Higgins has secured a very high place in the pantheon of greats. He’s an artist of extraordinary taste, range, and power and making music with him on recordings or in concert has always been a privilege and a joy for me.

John Williams

The film was a box office hit and the score garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. The success pushed Williams to prepare a three-movement concert suite based on the main thematic material from the score called Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. The piece, also featuring extended solo parts for vibraphone and bass, is virtually a concerto for alto saxophone and can be put on the same level of classical alto saxophone concerti by Jacques Ibert and Alexander Glazunov. Higgins premiered the concert suite with the Maestro on the podium conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra in May 2003 (the event was also aired as part of the PBS’ series Evening at Pops), and subsequently appeared as guest soloist to perform the piece with notable orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, often with John Williams conducting. Under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, Dan was featured soloist with the LA Phil at the 2014 Gala Concert “A Tribute to John Williams”, which subsequently aired on PBS for the series Great Performances. In 2017, Williams recorded the Escapades as part of the Spielberg/Williams Ultimate Collection boxset for Sony Classical, with Dan Higgins as soloist on alto saxophone, German percussionist Martin Grubinger on vibes, and LA-based musician Michael Valerio on bass. The piece won a Grammy Award in 2018 as Best Instrumental Composition.

Composer John Williams, percussionist Martin Grubinger, bassist Mike Valerio, director Steven Spielberg and saxophonist Dan Higgins during the recording sessions of “Escapades” from Catch Me If You Can in 2017 at Royce Hall, Los Angeles (photo courtesy of Sony Classical)

Dan also played clarinet solos on The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and on the source music jazz piece on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) heard during the sequence on the casino planet called Canto Bight; he also performed alto saxophone on The Book Thief (2013) and was part of the woodwind section in other John Williams scores.

Dan Higgins is also a talented composer and arranger of his own. He contributed two arrangements on the 2013 Grammy-winning album Dear Diz by Arturo Sandoval, and also arranged music for such artists as Bette Midler, Lyle Lovett, Andrea Bocelli and Pussycat Dolls. He did arrangements and orchestrations for The Princess and the Frog, Water for Elephants, The Notebook and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. In 2013, Dan was hired to compose, arrange and adapt big band music for Warner Bros.’ period film Gangster Squad; in 2020, he wrote and arranged big band music for Netflix’s acclaimed film Mank, directed by David Fincher.

Dan Higgins recording a sax solo (photo courtesy of Dan Higgins, used under permission)

In this conversation, Dan talks about his amazing career as studio musicians in Los Angeles, his early days as jazz musician, how he picked up the legacy from legendary studio saxophonists like Gene Cipriano and Ronnie Lang and also how he learned discipline from them. Dan talks extensively about the projects he did with John Williams, with a special focus on his soloist work on Catch Me If You Can, remembering the recording sessions for that film and offering his own unique insight into the creative process of Maestro Williams. Dan also recollects the work on The Adventures of Tintin and the unique instructions John Williams gave him before recording the zany “Canto Bight” jazz piece for The Last Jedi.

Illustration by Gianmaria Caschetto © 2021

Special Thanks to Dan Higgins for his time and generosity; thanks to Jeff Commings for the help and support in setting up the interview. Visit Dan’s website for more information about his career and recordings: http://www.danhiggins.net/


List of music excerpts featured in the episode (all music by John Williams except where noted)

. Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra, from the film score Catch Me If You Can (2002) – II. Reflections (Dan Higgins, alto sax; Martin Grubinger, vibraphone; Mike Valerio, bass; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra from the film score Catch Me If You Can (2002) – I. Closing In (Dan Higgins, alto sax; Martin Grubinger, vibraphone; Mike Valerio, bass; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. Henry Mancini, “Theme” from the television series Peter Gunn (1959); Gene Cipriano, saxophone
. “Something for Rosa”, from Earthquake (1974); Ronnie Lang, flute solo
. “Main Title”,”Learning the Ropes”, “The Flash Comic Cue”, “The ‘Float'”, from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn, “Call Me Irresponsible”, from Sabrina (1995), arranged and conducted by John Williams
. “Father and Son”, from from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. “Recollections (The Father’s Theme)”, from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra from the film score Catch Me If You Can (2002) – III. Joy Ride (Dan Higgins, alto sax; Martin Grubinger, vibraphone; Mike Valerio, bass; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra from the film score Catch Me If You Can (2002) – II. Reflections (Dan Higgins, alto sax; Martin Grubinger, vibraphone; Mike Valerio, bass; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra from the film score Catch Me If You Can (2002) – III. Joy Ride (Dan Higgins, alto sax; Martin Grubinger, vibraphone; Mike Valerio, bass; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Snowy’s Theme”, from The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
. “Irina’s Theme”, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
. “Canto Bight”, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
. Randy Newman, “Leonard”, from Awakenings (1990), original motion picture score
. “The Tale of Viktor Navorski”, from The Terminal (2004); Emily Bernstein, clarinet solo
. “Recollections (The Father’s Theme)”, from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. “The Flight to Bagghar”, from The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
. “End Credits”, from The Book Thief (2013)
. George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (arranged and conducted by Johnny Williams), from the album Rhythm In Motion (1961)
. “End Credits”, from The Book Thief (2013); Randy Kerber, piano solo
. Quincy Jones (arr. Sammy Nestico), “Quintessence”, from the album Basie and Beyond (1995); Dan Higgins, saxophone solo
. Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra from the film score Catch Me If You Can (2002) – III. Joy Ride (Dan Higgins, alto sax; Martin Grubinger, vibraphone; Mike Valerio, bass; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)