After an exceptional live debut, Charles Lloyd's new quartet comes out of the studio sounding too ordinary.
When veteran sax-man Charles Lloyd joined forces with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland, an ensuing live performance became one of the finest jazz albums of 2008. Rabo de Nube was simultaneously sprawling and graceful, exploring the tensions that exist between soft and loud, fast and slow, and the fact there is no reason for new jazz pieces to be assembled symmetrically anymore. Lloyd himself would alternate between his tenor, the flute, and the tarogato. The opening track "Prometheus" actually startled me. I had the ear buds in and Moran's entrance coupled by a precise whack at the kit from Eric Harland was like a sucker punch. It was humbling, considering that not many people are genuinely surprised by music anymore, let alone jazz, and let alone an elder statesman who's been in the game for close to 50 years. It's hard to believe that the same group of guys are responsible for Mirror, Rabo de Nube's tepid follow-up.
This is the quartet's first foray into the recording studio, and their approach has downshifted considerably. For one thing, they rely on some tired jazz standards such as "I Fall In Love Too Easily", "Monk's Mood" and "Ruby, My Dear." Public domain numbers get kicked around as well: "Go Down Moses" and the Lloyd repertoire mainstays "The Water Is Wide" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing." About the most adventurous idea for a cover is the Beach Boys' "Caroline, No." But even when Lloyd sprinkles his own originals here and there, it all comes out in the wash too similar. All of the right elements are in place: Lloyd's lyrical treatment of melody, Moran's elegiac chord blocks, and the reliable place holdings of Rogers and Harland. But nothing really takes flight until the end.
It's in the last two songs where Lloyd allows himself to get interesting. "Being and Becoming, Road to Dakshineshwar With Sangeeta" is still as subtle in spirit as the rest of the album, but the details matter a great deal more. Harland marks his entrance by a rubato tap that ushers in one of Moran's more lively passages on Mirror. After Lloyd carries the song for a good three minutes or so, the bottom drops out as his improvisations hang in the air. The piece is let down gently, the quartet breaking no sweat in the process. "Now that's more like it!" the admirer of Rabo de Nube in me says. Final track "Tagi" is even better. Moran paints most of the picture with deceptively deep harmonies while Rogers bows his instrument to create lead lines and pedal tones, establishing what a flowing river would probably sound like. All the while, Lloyd recites a spoken-word meditation that sits evenly in the mix, hardly functioning as a central variable in the piece. At the 4:30 mark, it almost sounds like Rogers hits an incorrect note and tries to rectify it! Lloyd then re-enters, sax intact, to ease the song's transition from quiet meditation, to a slow, soft boil. All so very interesting, this nine-minute encapsulation.
Unfortunately, that can't be said for the rest of Mirror. It's not that the album is bad, it's just too plain. Lloyd's most interesting work can be his most rewarding, and Mirror is an example of how little ventured equals little gained. If it weren't for the final two songs, I would say nothing ventured equals nothing gained.