April 29, 2005

Lloyd's Creek adds new facet to long career

Charles Lloyd's career has been a drama of many acts. In 1966, Lloyd's quartet with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Cecil McBee was the most popular group in jazz, slaying audiences from Monterey to Montreux in a now-legendary summer romp through the world festival circuit. By the early '70s, Lloyd had given up jazz saxophone and flute for transcendental meditation and New Age mood music. In the mid-'80s, the French pianist Michel Petruciani convinced Lloyd to end his premature jazz retirement, resulting in a European tour and two live albums. Lloyd has been an important and characteristically enigmatic force on the jazz scene ever since. Lloyd's most recent albums, a string of uniformly excellent dates for the ECM label, have primarily focused on his collaborations with his longtime friend, the late drummer Billy Higgins.

Higgins passed away in 2001, but his musical life has continued with the posthumous releases of two Lloyd-Higgins collaborations: Hyperion with Higgins and Which Way is East. The latter, an extended jam session between the two old friends, is likely to be the final album of the Lloyd-Higgins partnership. Lloyd has been working with a new band since Higgins's death, but the release of Which Way is East represented the true final chapter in this phase of Lloyd's musical life—a cathartic opening of the musical vaults that allowed Higgins's musical soul to finally rest in peace with his earthly one.

Jumping the Creek, Lloyd's new album for ECM, is the beginning of yet another act in the sprawling drama of his life. The spirituality and global eclecticism that have so long characterized Lloyd's music remain, but Jumping the Creek has a more fiery temperament than the Lloyd-Higgins collaborations. The album begins with an extended interpretation of Jacques Brel's composition "Ne Me Quitte Pas" that spans Lloyd's dynamic and emotional range as an improviser. The track begins with a delicate piano introduction by Geri Allen, before segueing into the wistful improvisations of Charles Lloyd's tenor saxophone. For the first three-quarters of the track, the music dwells in a meditative aesthetic, floating between Lloyd's ethereal tone, Allen's tender accompaniment, and the unobtrusive textural support of bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland. In the last quarter of the track, however, the band ever so slowly ratchets up the music's tension, culminating in a soaring flight by Lloyd's saxophone. As the track ends, the band moves back into a tranquil meditation, but the memory of Lloyd's solo now looms over the music.

"Ne Me Quitte Pas" is emblematic of Lloyd's approach to composition and improvisation on Jumping the Creek. Much of the album is elegantly sparse. The music flows slowly, often trickling through saxophone whispers and silence. On several tracks, Lloyd pares down the quartet, opening up even more space. Quiet cool like this always runs the risk of becoming a lullaby. Yet Lloyd's music, for the most part, avoids repetition and boredom; a slow-burning intensity moves through even the music's softest moments, occasionally boiling to the surface in dense ecstasy.

This crucial textural effect is largely the work of Geri Allen. Allen is one of our finest jazz pianists, but in recent years she has rarely appeared live or on record. Her performance on Jumping the Creek reminds us just how wonderful a musician she can be; her post-bop virtuosity grounds Lloyd's more outré improvisations in a familiar musical language.

Allen and Lloyd often sound like they are playing in two distinct languages, if not two different eras. Allen's approach to the piano owes a debt to Herbie Hancock's classic '60s Blue Note albums. Like Hancock, her playing is harmonically inventive, spacious, yet intense, equally capable of soft accompaniment or searing improvisation. Lloyd's sound is harder to place. You can hear the influence of Lester Young's breathy tenor, but there is a slightly metallic tinge to Lloyd's tone, removing both the tenor and alto sax from their sonic allegiance with the human voice. In the best moments of Jumping the Creek, Lloyd's metallic breath and Allen's post-bop intensity amplify one another, allowing each musician to share in one another's language.

Jumping the Creek emphasizes these intimate musical conversations, occasionally at the expense of the music's dynamism. Lloyd and his quartet have crafted an album of delicate restrain that, even in its moments of densely packed intensity, is unwilling to fully leave behind its meditative temperament. Lloyd should certainly be applauded for not playing loud and fast as a means to easy thrills, but Jumping the Creek would be well served by a few more moments of true improvisatory abandon. On the whole, though, this is an album of consistent and beautiful vision, where the most thrilling moments come when whispers and silences build towards the rare pleasure of shared epiphany.