The career of tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd has passed in and out of the spotlight, like a train moving from sunny midday into a tunnel, then around a mountain’s shady side and back into glorious afternoon. As a young man in LA he hung out with Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, then toured with the groups of Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. In 1966 he released Forest Flower, an enormously popular association with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.
After spending part of the ’70s in meditative retirement, Lloyd resurfaced to collaborate with European pianists Michel Petrucciani and Bobo Stenson. But it wasn’t until he joined up with scintillating drummer Billy Higgins for Voice in the Night (ECM, 1999) that he began mining a vein of mature passion. The quartet with Higgins, which included guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland, brought a renewed Lloyd to the fore, his playing full of deft atmospherics and bluesy lyricism. And the seeds planted by Voice grew into two of Lloyd’s best releases in decades.
Bringing in bassist Larry Grenadier, holding onto Higgins and Abercrombie, and adding the moody individualism of Brad Mehldau on piano, Lloyd had himself the band of a lifetime. Concert appearances only confirmed what The Water is Wide (ECM, 2000) was telling us — that the quintet had quietly become one of the premier groups of jazz’s new intimacy. Heartrending performances of “Georgia,” “There is a Balm in Gilead” and Ellington’s “Black Butterfly” alternated with gently head-bobbing material. And Higgins’ contribution to the pulse and overall feel was immeasurable.
So when the serenely joyful drummer passed away in May, bringing to an end one of the great creative associations in recent memory, ECM went back to the same LA recording sessions which produced The Water is Wide and put together Hyperion With Higgins, this time focusing on more up-tempo material. The hyperion of the title comes from Greek mythology and evokes celestial bodies, so this set is dedicated to Lloyd’s fellow researcher into lyricism, his dear friend who always (and on these last two discs in particular) elevated a band, pushing it up to levels of sonic delight that could only be called heavenly.
Mehldau opens “Dancing Waters, Big Sur to Bahia” (the first of eight compositions, all by Lloyd) almost but not quite somberly, yet within moments the tone shifts as airy cymbals and breathy tenor join in, everybody gliding along on a cloud of mindfulness. Abercrombie picks his notes like a man choosing stones for a garden path, putting them perfectly in place. And Lloyd turns his first solo on this CD into an announcement, an invitation to a betrothal between the one and the many.
Track two, “Bharati,” takes the tempo up just a bit, with Higgins showing how to swing and lope along simultaneously. And by track three, “Secret Life of the Forbidden City,” the drummer renowned for his bounce is prancing along behind Mehldau’s grooved excursion through modal archways and ivory forests. Lloyd follows with a warm solo alternately fragmented and long-lined that harks back to the days when John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter walked the same planet.
The title track opens with a duet between Lloyd and his favorite rhythm basher, then picks up a bass line à la Trane at the Village Vanguard, forging ahead through any and all obstacles to enlightenment. By the time Mehldau joins in with block chords and another indispensable solo, you’ll understand why Lloyd loved Higgins so.
And the rest is just ambrosia.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.