Jason Moran has been an integral part of Charles Lloyd’s quartet since 2007. As an excursus on their body of work to date—which comprises Rabo de Nube (2008), Mirror (2010), and Athen’s Concert(2011)—this duet set reinforces a new sense of continuity in Lloyd’s music. It reflects with the hindsight of maturity upon his hitherto career-defining work of the late 60s and its disparate inspirations, while deepening an already highly empathetic rapport with Moran, who was unborn in 1967, when Lloyd scored such notable success with Forest Flower.
The album’s central statement is the half-hour, five-part title suite, which is the saxophonist’s dedication to his great-great-grandmother. Lloyd says: “She was taken from her parents at the age of 10…and sold to another slave-owner, who impregnated here when she was 14. The suite mirrors the stages of her life; loss of family, loneliness and the unknown, dreams, sorrow, and songs to her newborn children.”
In the suite’s opening part, “Journey Up River”, Lloyd evokes his African and Native American ancestry, deploying bass flute to the accompaniment of Moran’s tambourine; then in “Dreams of White Bluff” his tenor recasts the spiritual weight of John Coltrane as diaphanous cipher song. After the emotive turbulence of “Alone” and “Bolivar Blues”, the ruminative sorrow of the concluding “Hagar’s Lullaby” is immensely affecting.
A light dance through earl Hines’ “Rosetta”, with Moran perfectly capturing the joy in Hines’ blend of spiritual and popular song, breaks “Hagar”‘s poignantly melancholic spell.
The six songs which precede the suite are likewise mostly jazz standards. Between touchingly faithful homages to Billy Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl” and Gershwin’s “Bess, You is My Woman Now”, Moran plays exuberantly in the idiom of Strayhorn’s sometme employer Duke Ellington on the latter’s “Mood Indigo”, prompting Lloyd to respond with curlicues of concise, lustrous brilliance.
The duo’s rapport on Joe Greer’s “All About Ronnie” and Carl Fischer’s “You’ve Changed” (a standard favoured by Billie Holiday) is characterised by courtly delicacy. These frame Lloyd’s original composition “Pictogram”, the album’s only overt nod to the harmonic modernism pioneered by Ornette Coleman.
The brace of tracks that end the album are relatively modern: Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released” and Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows”. The former stands not only as further poignant testimonial to Hagar’s story, but also to The Band’s drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, who died just before the recording session; the latter is a tune Lloyd would’ve played live with the Beach Boys in the 1970s, though presumably not with the same languid nostalgia he imparts to it here. Moran’s relative detachment is vital, leavening a slightly saccharine characteristic of Lloyd’s devotionals with a vigorous dash of music hall bounce.
Charles Lloyd saxophones; Jason Moran piano.