The songwriting credits on saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s latest release, The Water Is Wide, include some legendary jazz figures: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Hoagy Carmichael. Charles Lloyd isn’t quite in their league yet, but he has been releasing high-quality traditional jazz albums on and off since the late 1950s. For The Water Is Wide, Lloyd is joined by four other talented musicians, including drummer Billy Higgins, who has played with everyone from John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry, and young pianist Brad Mehldau, whose gentle playing is a major contribution to the group’s sound. Together they’ve put together a slick yet enjoyable album of jazz in the tradition of the masters.
To say this is in the tradition of the masters, however, does not mean that Lloyd is following their trailblazing ways. Rather, the majority of these tracks stick tightly to the history of jazz. There’s nothing especially innovative or groundbreaking here. Instead it’s a bunch of talented musicians playing the music they love. Charles Lloyd and his companions take on jazz classics like Carmichael’s “Georgia” and Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” in an elegant, graceful way that makes me imagine this CD playing at a classy soiree or in a historic nightclub. Their version of Ellington’s “Black Beauty” is especially gorgeous; Lloyd’s sax floats gently and softly, but with the assurance of a veteran who knows the material well.
When Charles Lloyd and company aren’t tackling jazz standards or Lloyd’s arrangements of spirituals, they take on originals by Lloyd, which are still in the same terrain but quieter and more contemplative, mood pieces more than songs. This more abstract quality is especially true of songs like “Prayer,” which is almost new age music, reminding listeners of a biographical fact about Lloyd: partway through his career he had a spiritual awakening, became strongly interested in transcendental meditation and temporarily gave up playing jazz.
None of the playing on The Water Is Wide is the least bit sloppy or off-the-mark. Yet how much you like the CD depends greatly on what you look for in jazz music. I appreciate hyper-traditional jazz musicians like Lloyd keeping history alive and continuing in the path of legendary figures, yet listening to The Water Is Wide makes me long for the musicians to surprise me or take me down a new, exciting path. Charles Lloyd’s The Water Is Wide is a delight to have on in the background, but it doesn’t push the music in any way it hasn’t gone before. It’s nearly impossible to fault Lloyd for this fact; he and his companions are accomplished musicians playing the music they love. Still, sometimes I picture most current jazz as the proverbial hamster on a treadmill, going around and around without ever really moving forward, and that makes me sad.