Jazz success stories, at least the modern kind that have occurred since the rise of rock music in the 1960s, tend to be strange. How does someone playing intricate improvised instrumental music on a trumpet or saxophone really blow up in the public eye in the modern age? There’s usually a hook.
So, Wynton Marsalis was just a great player, but he also was nominated for Grammys in both classical music and jazz in the same year. At the age of 19. And everybody knows Herbie Hancock, maybe, but that’s because he’s the “Rockit” guy in addition to a pianist from the Miles Davis Quintet.
The fame of Charles Lloyd is one of strangest tales out there. Lloyd grew up in Memphis and came of age playing sax with B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, but he also had a top-notch jazz education from pianist Phineas Newborne, big band leader Gerald Wilson, and eventually from Cannonball Adderley, in whose band he played tenor sax for a couple of years. But he got famous because he started his own quartet in 1966, a band featuring a young pianist named Keith Jarrett, and they forged a sound that mixed the meditative exploration of Coltrane with some good ol’ soul jazz and a whole lot of mid-‘60s mysticism. Their album and tune “Forest Flower” was a hit, and Lloyd was the first jazz musician to play the Fillmore.
And then, in 1968, the quartet split and Lloyd vanished. Almost two decades went by, with Lloyd playing very little (weirdly, doing some touring and recording with the 1970s incarnation of the Beach Boys) until he slowly resurfaced as the same player in a wonderful new context. Playing at first with pianist Michel Petrucciani and later with his own bands, he explored a variety of forms of balladry, impressionistic playing, and various forms of world music. But usually, it was with a great pianist: Bobo Stenson, then Brad Mehldau and Geri Allen, and more recently (since 2008) Jason Moran.
Hagar’s Song is nothing more and nothing less than a set of duets with Moran. And in many respects it is the most intimate—and best—work of Lloyd’s career.
There has always been something idiosyncratic and difficult about Lloyd’s playing. He has a distinctive but sometimes thin tone, and his brilliance has been marred by lots of aimless playing, noodling you might say. Some of what Lloyd’s fans might call profound I tend to find tedious. But Hagar’s Song is the best of what Lloyd does: powerful introspection and intensity, a focused lyricism that sounds personal.
The program here contains all of what interests Lloyd: standards and free improvisation, rock tunes and textured originals. And because Moran is a versatile but daring player, Lloyd approaches these tunes with an orchestral originality. On Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”, Moran begins with a simple series of chords built around a single repeated high note, rolling in a hip bass line and eventually more complex harmonies. But Moran creates a context that is compelling even as it honors the simplicity (which is the beauty) of Dylan’s song. Lloyd barely does more than state the melody in different registers, but the vocal elements he brings to the song—cracking quavers in the upper register (where he continues to excel on tenor sax), breathy middle tones and a nasal resonance down low—make it feel complete without any fancy-pants rewiring of the melody.
Moran is brilliant setting the table on Chris Conner’s 1953 hit “All About Ronnie” as well. He caresses the keys to create harp effects, rainfall patters, shimmers—really anything that Lloyd needs to float his quivering melody upon. But when a more rhythmic approach is needed—say on the Earl Hines tune “Rosetta”—Moran is raggy and bouncing without resorting for formula. His left hand is strong but not thumping, and the sense of texture is always there, thanks in part to the crystalline recording quality provided (as ever) by Manfred Eicher’s ECM magic.
Happily, the sheer beauty of much of Hagar’s Song is relieved by elements of harmonic freedom. “Rosetta” may be from the ‘20s or ‘30s, but Moran clatters a line or two that could have been played only in the last couple of decades. “Pictogram” is a freely improvised conversation that sounds easy and light in temperament but thorny in the ideas it suggests. Moran plays a walking bass line with his left hand but, even there, the time suggested is not just swinging 4/4, and the two musicians allow more than one time signature to exist at once, each confident that they needn’t be lined up to be playing together.
The collection’s centerpiece is the five-part “Hagar Suite”, which combines lyrical and free elements, using some of the meditative elements from Lloyd’s playing as central features. Lloyd uses his low flute sounds to become a quiet drum in many places, and the music is thorny even as it is beautiful. In the second part of the suite, Lloyd’s control of his tone on tenor is so careful that it sounds at first just like his flute, with Moran setting harmonic tones that keep everything shimmering in overtones. “Bolivar Blues (part four)” finds Moran’s piano strings buzzing with some kind of preparation, even as the duo adds tambourine to a developing story that suggests struggle into resolution.
But the balance of “Hagar’s Song” is beauty, beauty, beauty. The standards “You’ve Changed”, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, and “Mood Indigo” all suggest impeccable symbiosis between the players. The performance here that you’ll want to hear again and again is “God Only Knows”, the Beach Boys ballad that is most likely to last forever. And here you can tell why. Moran establishes harmonies that ring, countermelodies against the main melody, and plenty of open space. And Lloyd sketches the tune in charcoal against the atempo piano at first, but then Moran begins playing with a gentle rhythmic sway, bringing back that repeated-note trick from the Dylan tune. The album ends with Moran lifting the melody back up in that sway, a promise that this duo isn’t quite done yet.
It would be nice to hear more from Lloyd—and certainly Moran’s playing with Lloyd. I don’t know that Charles Lloyd will ever seem like a great improviser. Most of what he plays here is either melody, embellished melody, or a kind of textural-atmospheric fill. But it is beautiful, heartfelt music. And that is enough for one jazz record, most certainly. Hagar’s Song is low on flash. And it rests with love against your ear.