Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Poetic Charles Lloyd

Rabo de Nube
Charles Lloyd Quartet
ECM Records

There seems to be something almost otherworldly about Charles Lloyd. Steeped in the primeval blues of Memphis and informed by Eastern music and philosophy, Lloyd always pursues his own alchemy. His latest, Rabo de Nube a live set released within days of his seventieth birthday, proves Lloyd’s powers remain undiminished with the passage of years.

U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic contributed original verse for the liner, in an appropriate fit between poet and musician. Simic’s work combines the very real, concrete details of our world with a surreal vision of what lurks around the corner, just out of sight. Lloyd has always been very much of this world, grounded in the blues. Yet he is able to step outside it, with his searching flights of exploration.

In “Two for Charles Lloyd” Simic contrasts the pastoral of the flute with the urban of the tenor saxophone. For tenor, Simic writes: “Late night talk/On a tenor/With the dead/And the shadows they cast.” The opener “Prometheus,” a tenor feature, is a turbulent piece that demonstrates why Lloyd was often categorized in the Coltrane school during the 1960’s. Skitterish and constantly changing, it indeed could be an eerie conversation with Trane.

Lloyd continues on tenor with “Migration of Spirit.” Starting with Reuben Rodgers’ unaccompanied bass prelude, it builds in intensity as the full quartet enters, ultimately reaching ecstatic crescendos as Lloyd swoops and soars above. Then the rhythm section locks in and brings it back to Earth for a swinging solo from Jason Moran.

JaMo is one of the most accomplished jazz artists to hit the scene in the last eight or nine years, and it is fascinating to hear him play with Lloyd. Moran has recently been exploring the music of Thelonius Monk (particularly the 1959 Town Hall concert) so he has a lot to say with Lloyd on the Monkish duet “La Colline de Monk.”

Simic associates the flute with nature—the Charles Lloyd pictured in Big Sur, gazing out into the far distance. He writes: “The sound of flute,/That purest of instruments,/Close to breath,/Close to wind in the leaves.” Yet the flute selection is the most boppish tune on Rabo, “Booker’s Garden,” an up-tempo tribute to Booker Little, that also features a funky, percussive solo from Moran.

The concluding title track is the only composition of the set not penned by Lloyd. It is a tune he is revisiting from Lift Every Voice, the powerful set of spirituals and other meaningful tunes Lloyd recorded in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. The version here is much less elegiac, with a relaxed lyricism perfectly suiting his tenor voice.

Lloyd is indeed a poetic jazz artist. He has long had a mysterious ability to invent brief little melodies (or stanzas) in his solos that seem to redefine the entire song. As evidenced by Rabo, he has lost none of his power.