Charles Lloyd first arrived on the scene back in the '50s and soon made a name for himself on the West Coast (and well beyond) playing saxophone in a Coltrane-influenced vein that made him something of a crossover success. In the late '60s and early '70s, he was one of the biggest names in jazz, leading a band that at one point included Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. His music, then and now, is an open mix of styles that had absorbed the modal approach of Indian music while also delving into sounds from East Asia.
Such importance was Asian culture to Lloyd that he took a sabbatical at the height of his career success and studied transcendental meditation for 10 years. He returned in the '80s to play and record with such talented musicians as Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, Michel Petrucciani, Brad Mehldau, Billy Higgins and Zakir Hussain. Yet his working band since 2007pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harlandgoes down as a late-era classic for the 72-year-old leader. The quartet, along with guest vocalist Alycia Hall Moran, played the Rose Hall at Lincoln Center on Janu. 29, reaffirming the mercurial Lloyd's stature as one of the great elder statesmen of jazz, somewhat of a shaman trickster and a tireless supporter of his sidemen. It was, in essence, a perfect Charles Lloyd show.
Perhaps the most revealing moment of the night was the closing piece, 'Tagi.' Here, Lloyd joined Moran at the piano for a swirling figure as Harland intoned a low moan into a microphone that recalled the chants of Tibetan monks. After a moment, Lloyd quoted several lines from the sacred Hindu text Bhagavad Gita. The overall theme was indeed a search for peace, clarity and serenity, and it was obvious that this informed the music of Lloyd and the band. The band was often rapturous, but quietly so.
Much like Wayne Shorter's quartet, this group is an extension of its leader and can get as elevated as it wants to. Sometimes on the mid- to up-tempo material this took on an almost academic bent, and there seemed to be less connection between the players. But when the material slowed down, there was an elegiac beauty that reached beyond jazz.
The band was most in sync on the ballads, of which there were many in this 10-song set. The members conjured music that was often delicate and melodic, with Lloyd gently blowing melodies on his tenor sax (though he had his alto flute or tarogato onstage, he didn't play them). Lloyd plays a crooked tenor sax like Lester Young did, and you could hear Young's influence on the delicate runs, trills and elliptical lines. Never did Lloyd overplayif that doesn't honor Young, I don't know what does.
Eric Harland's unique approach to time was about as far as you can get from conventional swing. There was nothing straight about his playing with flourishes and accents, commentary and monologue; there was sometimes a pulse but rarely anything resembling an anchor: That job was handled by Moran, Rogers or Lloyd. Such was the comfort level of this band that an anchor may be something some listeners would need amid the free-ranging chemistry. But did the band need one? Not so much.
Watch the Charles Lloyd Quartet's Live 'A Requiem for Master Collette' Video
Though they were given just as much space to wander as Harland had, Rogers and Moran were more conventional in their approach. Rogers was the most straightforward player of the four, though he did throw in different shapes and ideas at timesparticularly effective were the strummed chords that brought a nice droning texture to the music on 'Passing Thru.' The amazingly flexible Moran seemed game for whatever was thrown at him, flinging it back with flair as he drew upon stride, blues, bebop and beyond. At other times, when Lloyd stepped away from the microphone, the pianist would take control and drive the band into challenging waters without a life vest.
The spiritual theme of the evening wasn't just saved for Hindu text. While the band plays a fairly airy version of the gospel classic 'Go Down Moses' on 2010's 'Mirror,' the live version from 2011 was heavy and dirgelike. Here, operatic soprano Alicia Hall Moran joined the band, offering her earthy tone with a heightened technique that projected a steely intensity. The spiritual opened as a duet with her husband and pianist that was a shock to the system after a few ballads like 'I Fall in Love Too Easily' and 'Being and Becoming.' With her shoulders square to the audience, she sang the song as if it were a challenge, delivering the recurring lyric Let my people go" at the end of each line of the chorus.
The singer appeared on the equally powerful but more playful 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' which also is on 'Mirror.' Lloyd introduced the song as the first song of the encore, encouraging those who stood for the ovation to remain standing if they could, though ever the trickster, he added the conciliatory aside to those who sat: I was old once, too!" Powerful, elegant and challenging, the tune deserved its standing audience.
While this band has been known to tackle a Monk tunethe band does two on 'Mirror'there weren't any on this night. It's a small disappointment for sure, but the band's nearly unrecognizable instrumental version of the Beach Boys' 'Caroline, No' put a whole new spin while retaining the melancholy nature of the original thanks to Moran's artful solo and Harland's probing rhythm.
All in all, a great night of music by one of the best working quartets going today. The group sidestepped expectations at every turn while displaying a chemistry that was as unique as the leader himself.