Charles Lloyd’s emergence from something like religious retreat may have given some listeners to that sometime trendy performer a first chance to appreciate the range of his talents. With younger, very gifted players, he’s been extending his discography considerably these past few years. A lot of people record too much these days, and Lloyd’s problem seems always to have been failure of judgment when he leaves his deeper roots too far behind and lets both feet rise of the ground.
The first three minutes here are magical. Geri Allen, another musician who can lose touch, opens with a brilliant realisation of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, very reminiscent of the wonderful Spanish piano music inspired by Debussy and Ravel. Lloyd enters with a reprise of the music on astringently tender tenor saxophone, adding up to three minutes of musical perfection. During the remaining 10 minutes of that track, the opening passage is reprised once with a certain rescheduling of the sequence of phrases. For the rest, and despite a valiant attempt at input from the brilliant bassist and drummer Robert Hurst and Eric Harland, Allen delivers quite flawlessly a succession of piano mannerisms which like the equal mannerisms of Lloyd derive from passagework devised by John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner or someone similar.
Then we hear Lloyd’s wonderful alto over press-rolls from the drummer, and if you own the impressive set Lloyd recorded with Billy Higgins you’ll both know what to expect and have no need of this further example. The third title is a sort of Coltrane version of the old Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”, more or less and under another name. A nice idea anything but enhanced by the entry with prominent drumming which just sounds like pastiche of a great Coltrane quartet. Nice to hear on a live gig, but palls quickly on a third listen. Mal Waldron’s piano solo of “Strange Fruit” did it all much better decades ago (originally recorded for Black Lion).
There’s the nice bop lick on the next title, and the use of tagato on the following, but he’s been there before and recorded that. There’s more light-toned tenor, just at odd moments recalling Lester Young (the blurb material exaggerates that) and locating Lloyd as early on a tenor of the cool or post-Lester school who brought in some Coltrane. The compositions, or the pieces of music with names which could be taken for pretentious, maintain a fairly consistent mood. Whether there is any musical substance is a pressing question. Start the player anywhere on this CD and you will quite possibly hear some exquisite sound(s). But is this more than mood music for the intellectually sophisticated and those who fancy themselves intellectually sophisticated?
The other composition, beside the opener and “Strange Fruit” under a different name, is Ellington’s “Come Sunday”. Think of that as a tune commanding awe, and you are half way toward appreciating quite what Lloyd and then Allen do. They are (pregnant pause) playing “Come Sunday”, but in working to maintain the spell they touch the very margin of self-conscious performance.
On the penultimate title Lloyd plays alto with something of the fluctuation of timbre of an oriental horn — perhaps the tagato which he plays earlier; his earlier alto work here also essays that eastern effect — and the combination of solo horn and drums here has an arresting eerieness. Hurst does leaven slightly, with curious baritonal cries from bowed bass — the more of the same which is the concluding track.
This may all be a meditation maintaining closely a certain mood, and commendable as such, though lacking in musical development and having little to offer which isn’t available elsewhere. The subtle blend is oriental and Trane and Ms. Allen’s striking clarity on the piano. And there is hardly more to it. A list of the titles may suggest some of the associations of this music for the performers, at least from Lloyd. I really don’t want to send up this recording — some people will say this has been done in Stanley Crouch’s liner sermon — but from outside I can’t recommend it with much conviction, other than probably the three minutes’ perfection with which it opens. Unless stated otherwise Lloyd is composer for all the titles. The instrumental execution is magnificent throughout.