"The Water is Wide" is the first of two Charles Lloyd albums culled from an exceptionally productive session in Los Angeles. By turns tender, joyful, reflective, it brings together authoritative players who span the generations; each is a unique musician and distinctive stylist, yet all share a reverence for the depth of the jazz tradition.
Charles Lloyd's outward career has followed a singular pattern of renaissances and retreats since his sensational arrival in the public arena in the 1960s, but has been decidedly on an upswing after the universally-lauded "Voice In The Night" album which documented a reunion with an old friend, drummer Billy Higgins. Higgins is again the driving force behind's Lloyd's newest disc. The tenorist cannot praise the drum innovator highly enough.
"The beauty of Higgins and me is that we've been making music together since I was eighteen. He's a spiritual Master who has elevated his instrument to that level where he hears 'in the moment' and plays what the music 'is' at that time." A quality that has of course been recognised by the great jazz masters of the last half-century, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Dexter Gordon and many others whose music has been driven by Higgins' pulses. As Lloyd put it in an interview once, "Having Mr Higgins behind you makes you jump up and shout, makes you think you can walk on water, makes you want to testify. Billy's got all the moves that you can't see, and of all the drummers, he's the most minimalist. His kit is never overly huge; his bravura is never over the top; he can do it all with the smallest gesture. He makes you sharpen your focus."
Also retained from the "Voice" band is ECM veteran John Abercrombie, the New Yorker whom Lloyd likes to call "a Scotsman knee-deep in the blues." Abercrombie's presence resolves some unfinished business in Lloyd's history. The saxophonist explains: "When I was in my 20s, I met a young Hungarian guitarist, Gabor Szabo; he brought together Bartók and the gypsies. He had a blend of spirit and sharing, and like my high school friend Booker Little, he left too soon. Over the years I have missed not having Gabor here to play with. But the Creator works in strange ways because, all along, standing in front of me, has been a young man who was influenced by my recording 'Of Course. Of Course' with the late great Tony Williams, the late Gabor Szabo, and the great Ron Carter. John Abercrombie was also influenced by Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Grant Green... When we first played together I breathed a sigh of relief that I could play with the guitar again."
In 1998, Charles Lloyd, who has always had an ear for good pianists (think of Jarrett, Petrucciani, Stenson, or of Phineas Newborn, an early partner in Memphis) invited the up-and-coming Brad Mehldau to join him for a Californian concert and found the result so satisfying that he proposed a recording project to ECM. Lloyd and Manfred Eicher decided together upon the personnel for "The Water Is Wide", which pools three-quarters of the "Voice" band and two-thirds of the Brad Mehldau Trio. Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier have a proven rapport and familiarity, Lloyd and Higgins go all the way back to the1950s together, and Abercrombie's musical relationship has strengthened in the course of extensive touring since the "Voice In The Night" session.
It took more than a year to find three days in which all of these in-demand players could be in the same place at the same time, but in December 1999 the session was finally scheduled. Even then it was tight, since Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier left the studio each evening for Mehldau Trio performances in an LA Club. "The Water Is Wide", then, documents a special gathering of musicians brought together for the first time; schedules are unlikely to permit a reconvening of all participants in the near future.
Lloyd, though, had prepared the session carefully, with a wide ranging programme embracing unrecorded compositions of his own, lesser-known Ellington and Strayhorn songs, standards, traditional folk songs and spirituals, plus reworkings of a couple of pieces from his past. His primary objective was to set up a coherent "journey", using different permutations of musicians to sustain a sense of a flow in a recording distinguished by the subtlest nuance.
The album opens with Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia". Lloyd: "I was always moved by Ray Charles's version. It is so soulful and haunting. I wanted to approach it with simplicity and modernity." Both Lloyd and Mehldau impress as "singers" in this unadorned version that cleaves to the melody.
"The Water Is Wide", the album's title track, is very well known in folk music circles. The song dates from the 18th century or even earlier, and its Scottish melody was collected by Cecil Sharp. Some of the many performers who have included it in their repertoires are Fred Neil, Davey Graham, James Taylor, Karla Bonoff, Michelle Shocked and Van Dyke Parks; jazz interpretations include those of Bob Berg and Paul Winter. In the present version, John Abercrombie shines, his filigree soloing underpinned by Larry Grenadier's well-chosen notes. "Larry was a jewel and a discovery for me," Lloyd says. "I'd never played with him, but I had heard him with Brad and Pat (Metheny). Larry has deep sensitivity and great flexibility, his tone and strength are beautiful - all the talking was done in the music."
Duke Ellington's 1938 tune, "Black Butterfly" was famously revisited by the master on the occasion of his "70th Birthday Concert" recordings of 1969. Other distinguished versions include those of Abbey Lincoln, Hank Jones, Earl Hines and Zoot Sims. "Heaven", meanwhile, is from Duke Ellington's sacred music. "It's a piece you rarely hear. I took liberties with the approach but wanted to remain true to the song. A trilogy of Ellington-related pieces includes Lloyd's own "Figure In Blue", previously recorded on "The Call" with Bobo Stenson. "I wanted to broaden my approach. This is a piece I wrote for Duke after reflecting on a week I spent in the South of France with him and Strayhorn and the orchestra." And apropos Billy Strayhorn, the group turns in a fine performance of "Lotus Blossom", majestic piece indeed, "filled with nuance and beauty. The melody and harmony are so touching. I knew that Master Higgins would give it the magic carpet we could soar on. Notice how he goes seamlessly between brushes and sticks."
"Ballade and Allegro" are part of a ballet Lloyd wrote while living in New York. "I had Brad open the theme very simply. We didn't really rehearse it other than to read it through together. First time through it was a take."
Lloyd describes "The Monk and the Mermaid" as "very personal and difficult to talk about." In part it is concerned with the dynamics of meditation. The piece is played as a tenor and piano duet with lines both interconnected and independent. "There is a synchronicity at work in our playing." The performance also gives notice of Mehldau's "classical" leanings and his sense for structure in motion. He avoids the rhapsodic, is concerned with the shape of the whole, yet hears and interacts with Lloyd's subtle shifts of phrasing.
"Song of Her" by Cecil McBee is from the repertoire of Lloyd's 60s quartet and appeared originally on the "Forest Flower" album. "It seemed completely natural to revisit this song after so many years."Particularly fine playing by Grenadier anchors Lloyd's tender tenor flights which have lost none of their buoyancy down the years. "Lady Day" is of course a tribute to Billie Holiday, "a lifelong influence" for Charles Lloyd. "I can feel her presence and she continues to inspire me to this day."
Of "There is a balm in Gilead", Lloyd say, "This old spiritual touches me deeply. I come from a mixture of indigenous peoples who came together on these shores. As a child, I felt alone and abandoned until I made a connection with the Creator. Both the words and the melody moved me to record this: 'Sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my life's in vain, but then the Holy Spirit lifts up my soul again. There is balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole'".
At the end of the session, Lloyd called back Abercrombie and second bassist Darek Oles (the Polish expatriate Darek Oleskiewicz who frequently tours with Charles) to play a "Prayer" for drummer Billy Higgins, who survived life-threatening illness and a liver transplant in 1996 and continues to play strongly today. "I thanked the creator that he's still here with us."