Charles Lloyd: Hyperion with Higgins

Charles Lloyd
Hyperion with Higgins

I wonder how many of the one million people who bought Forest Flower back in the hippy era will check this release out. Probably precious few. But incredible as it seems now, reedsman Charles Lloyd sold modern jazz in that quantity in the heyday of psychedelia and the counter-culture. His quartet, which featured Cacil McBee, Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett, became the token jazz outfit on the rock circuit and, at a time when free jazz was supposed to have killed off interest in the improvisatory art, were the best known such group in the world apart from Miles Davis’ ensemble. The critics were not so kind, regarding Lloyd as a commercialised, watered-down Coltrane and his band as crassly populist. Times change and if they re-united tomorrow, it would be the jazz event of the year.

The guardians of the One True Path now love Lloyd and the aging hippies have mostly forgotten him. The condescending attitude of the former was unjustified and the latter were a fickle bunch at the best of times. Fortunately Lloyd, who gave up stardom in the seventies to seek enlightenment in time honoured fashion, has found a good home at ECM, for whom this is his eighth album. He is still the most accessible of sixties jazz giants, still deeply indebted to Coltrane and still fond of a melody in a way which once so divided scribes and general public. What he has developed is a sureness of purpose — the spiritual element is ever-present — and, unless I am also guilty of underestimating those ancient recordings, his tone is rounder and fuller than before.

The title refers to the drummer Billy Higgins, who died earlier this year and whose loss is rightly mourned. Higgins was the gentlest and most elegant of the drummers who came up during the free jazz revolution. No date he ever graced could ever be said to lack poise. A friend of Lloyd’s from their teenage years, he makes the ideal drummer for this project and plays no small part in the album’s success. His timing and reserve fit perfectly with the unhurried, contemplative aura that surrounds each piece (even the brisker tunes). It is a fitting valedictory performance.

What Hyperion itself refers to is unclear, to me at least. In my English grammar school way, I assumed John Keats and Greek mythology were being invoked. “Hyperion”, you remember, being the unfinished poem and title of the volume wherein most of Keats’ best-loved verses are contained. However, as the liner dedication speaks of “a carpet ride to Hyperion” then presumably it refers to one of Saturn’s moons. Is there an obscure symbolism here? Hyperion’s irregular shape defies conventional scientific laws, apparently. Well, maybe not. Probably it just sounded good.

The music too sounds fine. I have to confess that I can’t get quite as excited, by what seems a fairly standard set, as some folk have, but it is pretty impressive, nonetheless. A relaxed, warm lyricism prevails throughout and the running order makes good sense. Three pretty and well-organised tunes ease you in before the band digs a little deeper into some more conceptual efforts. Finally a distinct Eastern, mystical flavour dominates, which I am less sure about, but is hardly unexpected. The players are first-rate — Brad Mehldau on piano is in top form and bassist Larry Grenadier shows himself to be rather better than I for one had suspected. Guitarist John Abercrombie has been criticised as the odd man out in this line. On the contrary, his blues-flavoured playing adds an extra dimension and is essential to the thematic content of at least two tunes.

That opening track, “Dancing Waters” is a beautiful, Brazilian-influenced number, led off in stately fashion by Mehldau. It quickly settles into a slightly tipsy bossa nova with Abercrombie and Lloyd working little patterns of sound out of some familiar but effective chord structures. It’s smooth jazz without the capital letters and a charming start to the record. “Bharati” follows, introduced by Grenadier’s resonant bass. Some conventional meanderings from the sax and then a typically precise solo from Mehldau complete a perfectly articulated, if rather orthodox, post-bop composition. Two longer tracks start to extend the players. On “Secret Life” Mehldau again shines, beginning with a little classical scene-setting then moving up a gear with some fine flourishes and runs. Lloyd does his tender side of Coltrane thing and guitar and bass also get in on the act. All very jaunty and cleverly judged stuff.

The meat of the album is the three middle tunes, “Miss Jessye”, “Hyperion” and the long “Darkness on the Delta Suite”. The first is “sheets of sound” based and would be a little wearing if not for excellent work by Higgins and Mehldau who hold the composition together. Quite often on this disc matters start to disintegrate, not in a free anarchic fashion. They simply seem to run out of steam. Somebody always steps in to save the day, but it makes me think that perhaps this is more of an out-take collection than the firm denials of the company imply. Hyperion comes from the same dates that produced the previous success,The Water Is Wide, hence the suspicion.

The title track is the only truly fast and furious number and shows Higgins and Lloyd as friends and extremely compatible musicians. They trade licks with relish, as do Higgins and a scene-stealing Mehldau, and though it is no classic it gives you all the right feelings and emphasises the loss Higgins’ death represents. He has less to do in the “Suite” which is, perhaps, not the tidiest of items but is both the most ambitious and thought-provoking track. A journey from the blues to the Orient it has bad poetry anthology sub-titles like “Mother Where Art Thou” and “Robert Johnson on the Banks of the Ganges”. That apart, it manages sufficient solemnity and grandeur to merit the term “Suite” with the earlier, bluesy sections particularly sonorous and evocative. Mehldau explores blues structures in an arcane but winning fashion while Abercrombie relies on more familiar phrasing. The combination is a winning one and Lloyd, while now in Eastern mode, throws in enough gutsy notes to remind us that he began his long career in the Memphis clubs behind the likes of Bobby Bland. More R&B (old style) follows with the lively but disposable “Dervish in Glory B” and then the full Asiatic mysticism of “The Caravan Moves On” closes proceedings. This is suitably atmospheric but I’ll stick with Ellington.

Despite some reservations, it’s a good set. It is less coherent than its predecessor but long on variety and, in Higgins and Mehldau, boasts some of this year’s better playing. Lloyd shows no signs of the aging process and continues to do what he’s really always done — make modern jazz with a stretched-out, spiritual feel that is easy to grasp and melodically enticing. His new audience isn’t hearing anything that different from his old one. Let’s hope they stick around for longer this time.