“Lloyd has an utterly personal sound that he exploits beautifully on ballads and lyrical, near-abstract pieces.”
The New Yorker
“The bottom line is that he is now producing, both live and on recordings, some of the finest playing of his career.”
Los Angeles Times
Hagar’s Song, the newest release from longtime ECM luminary Charles Lloyd, is an interactive duo recording with Jason Moran, the pianist who has been a key member of Lloyd’s latter-day quartet, contributing to the albums Rabo de Nube (2008), Mirror (2010) and Athens Concert (2012). Hagar’s Song, a collection of intimacy and homage, features pieces especially dear to Lloyd, ranging from compositions by Billy Strayhorn (“Pretty Girl” a/k/a “Star-Crossed Lovers”), Duke Ellington (“Mood Indigo”) and George Gershwin (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) to a standard strongly associated with Billie Holiday (“You’ve Changed”), Brian Wilson’s most famous Beach Boys ballad (“God Only Knows”) and a Bob Dylan song definitively interpreted by the Band (“I Shall Be Released”). The centerpiece of the album is the title suite composed by Lloyd and dedicated to his great-great-grandmother, who was taken from her home in south Mississippi at age 10 and sold to aslave-owner in Tennessee.
The release of Hagar’s Song comes in time to help mark Lloyd’s 75th birthday, on March 15, 2013. About the pieces that constitute Hagar’s Song, the saxophonist says: “Music has always been my inspiration and consolation – I hope to give the same. The songs we chose for the recording are part of the continuous thread of music that is my life.”
When Lloyd was in the south of France at the Antibes Festival in 1966, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn were there, too – and they took the younger jazz man “under the wide span of their wings and gave me great encouragement,” Lloyd recalls. “They are two of our greatest composers, and I have a particular affinity for Strayhorn’s lyricism and melancholy.” Lloyd has previously recorded the Strayhorn compositions “Lotus Blossom,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and “Bloodcount.” On Hagar’s Song, the album opener is another example of Strayhorn’s lyrical art par excellence: “Pretty Girl” (a/k/a “Star-Crossed Lovers,” which appeared as part of Ellington’s Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder). Lloyd limns the sweet-spot melody on his tenor saxophone as if whispering into a lover’s ear. The album also features Ellington’s deathless classic “Mood Indigo,” which Lloyd and Moran reanimate with the warmest and most convivial of spirits. Moran, a much-lauded modernist who never loses touch with the roots of jazz, shows his feeling for the blues.
“Everything I appreciate about Jason can be heard in his playing,” Lloyd says. “He is deeply rooted in the tradition, with his own branches reaching up toward the sky in new directions. Jason is very sensitive and adept on subtle levels. If I take three right turns instead of a left, he is there beside me without any need for verbal directions.”
Moran had not yet been born when Lloyd had his breakthrough with the 1967 album Forest Flower. But Moran recalls that his father encouraged him to listen to Forest Flower when he was just starting to check out jazz, and the album was part of the soundtrack of his childhood. Having collaborated with the elder musician on four albums now, the pianist says: “Charles approaches the music with such openness. I like playing with leaders who let you bring what you’ve got to the table and interpret the music however you’d like. Charles is a great promoter of free-thinking music, and letting it develop on the spot.”
The bluesy lyricism of Hagar’s Song continues with Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Porgy and Bess – given a treatment that is sweetly plaintive, the melody rarely sounding as intimate as it does here, like something confided. Lloyd and Moran channel the song’s emotion in a way that is at once as old as the hills and as contemporary as this morning’s sunrise. A lesser-known melody – but one every bit as beautiful, particularly in this transcendent reading by Lloyd – is that of “All About Ronnie,” written by Joe Greer and most notably recorded in the early 1950s by vocalist Chris Connor. Lloyd voices another affecting jazz ballad here: “You’ve Changed,” a song closely associated with Billie Holiday late in her career but also given great instrumental interpretations over the years by Dexter Gordon. “Rosetta” by Earl “Fatha” Hines was first recorded by the jazz piano icon in 1933 but covered later by everyone from Django Reinhardt and Nat King Cole to Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys. The version here is abstracted and elliptical – and utterly hypnotic.
Those new to Lloyd’s music might think that his version of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” here is anomaly; but the saxophonist was a featured guest on several Beach Boys albums in the 1970s, including Holland and Surf’s Up. Lloyd previously covered the Wilson highlight “Caroline, No” on the 2010 album Mirror, the second, with his quartet featuring Moran, bassist Rueben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. Referencing the album on which “God Only Knows” first appeared, Lloyd says: “Pet Sounds is a great recording - the depth of Brian Wilson's musical genius is in full glory. I have always loved Carl Wilson's sweet, pure voice on `God Only Knows,’ and it is another song that has long been filed away in mind with the idea of recording. The version that Jason and I did is like haiku.”
Bob Dylan composed his gospel-influenced social-protest anthem “I Shall Be Released” in the late ’60s, but his own recording wasn’t released until the next decade. It was the Band that put the song on the map with the group’s moving rendition on its 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink, famously recorded in Woodstock, NY. Lloyd dedicates his recording of “I Shall Be Released” to Band vocalist-drummer Levon Helm. “Levon died a few days before we went into the studio,” the saxophonist recalls. “He was a very soulful man, and I used to visit the Band and Dylan up in Woodstock. Robbie Robertson, the guitarist and songwriter in the Band, played on my Of Course, Of Course recording session in the ’60s, too.”
Just a few years ago, Ornette Coleman said: “Charles is playing really beautiful. He’s expressing the qualities of what we experience. Trying to make a contribution to the quality of life, to do with knowledge.” Lloyd’s original “Pictogram” has a classic Ornette feel, as he opens alone on alto saxophone (à la Coleman) before Moran joins in. Lloyd shadowboxes and sings out by turns, the pianist adding his own funky modernism as the ideal counterpoint.
As for the “Hagar’s Song” title suite – which sees Lloyd alternate evocatively between tenor and alto saxes and alto and bass flutes – the composer explains: “Hagar was my great, great grandmother. When I learned her story, it moved me very deeply. The suite reflects her life – from when she was taken from her parents at the age of 10 in the south of Mississippi up to Tennessee and sold to another slave owner, who impregnated her when she was 14. She was then sold to his daughter’s husband to be her personal slave. It is a convoluted and complicated story – the story of so many sold or traded into slavery. Slavery is horrific enough, but to snatch a tender child away from her parents, that hurts me to the core. I say `is’ in reference to slavery because the slave trade still exists in the far reaches of the world today. `HagarSuite’ mirrors the stages of my great-great-grandmother’s life: loss of family, loneliness and the unknown, her dreams and sorrows, and songs to her newborn children.”
Charles Lloyd was born in 1938 in Memphis, Tennessee. From an early age, he was immersed in that city's rich musical life, including jazz. He began playing the saxophone at age 9. Pianist Phineas Newborn became his mentor, and from age 12, Lloyd worked as sideman in the blues bands of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnnie Ace and Bobbie “Blue” Bland, among others. In 1956, Lloyd moved to Los Angeles and earned a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California. During this time, Lloyd played in Gerald Wilson’s big band, and he also had his own group that included Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Bobby Hutcherson and Terry Trotter. Lloyd joined Chico Hamilton in 1960, eventually becoming his music director. In 1964, Lloyd left Hamilton's group to join alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. During this period, Lloyd recorded two albums as a leader for Columbia, Discovery and Of Course, Of Course; his sidemen included Gabor Szabo, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Through 1965-69, Lloyd led a quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee (later, Ron McClure) and Jack DeJohnette. In 1967 Lloyd was voted Downbeat’s Jazzman of the year. The quartet's music was a timely fusion of straight-ahead post-bop, free jazz and world music that caught the attention of both jazz fans and critics. They also achieved crossover success with young rock fans and became the first jazz group to play at the Fillmore. Lloyd’s album Forest Flower: Live at Monterey became a commercial hit, largely on the strength of the title track. Other noteworthy albums included Dream Weaver, on Atlantic. In 1970, after the quartet disbanded, Lloyd moved back to California and entered a state of semi-retirement. He practically disappeared from the jazz scene, but could be heard on recordings with the Doors, Roger McGuinn, Canned Heat and the Beach Boys.
Upon recovery from a near-death experience in 1986, Lloyd decided to rededicate himself to music. He started performing live again in the late ’80s and began recording for ECM Records, showcasing his gifts as a composer and ballad player. The first ECM release was 1989’s Fish Out of Water with Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. Between 1993 and 1997, Lloyd’s quartet included Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin and Billy Hart. In 1998, Billy Higgins replaced Hart, and Lloyd alternated between Stenson and John Abercrombie in the band. Noteworthy albums include Canto, Voice In The Night and The Water Is Wide (featuring Brad Mehldau, John Abercrombie, Larry Grenadier and Billy Higgins). Geri Allen replaced Stenson as pianist for Lift Every Voice and Jumping the Creek. Drummer Eric Harland joined Lloyd’s quartet in 2002, following Billy Higgins’ passing, and is also a part of Lloyd’s Sangam trio, formed in 2004 with tabla master Zakir Hussain. Lloyd’s “new” quartet with Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Roger and drummer Eric Harland have released three ECM albums, the most recent being Athens Concert, in collaboration with Greek singer Maria Farantouri.
Unfazed by the distinguished pianists who have played with Lloyd over the course of his long career, Jason Moran has found his own, exciting way to play inside the saxophonist’s musical concepts. As The New York Times once observed, Moran reaches both further back in the jazz tradition and further outside it than most of his contemporaries. His strongly chordal approach and his percussive originality took off from an early interest in Thelonious Monk, but Moran’s studies with three great teachers – Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams – encouraged him to find his own path. Moran, born in 1975, has recorded a number of acclaimed albums as a leader (including, most recently, the award-winning trio disc Ten), being voted Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat Critics Poll and awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Award along the way. The Los Angeles Times has said of the pianist: “Although he has the facility to play with breathtaking fleetness, his uniqueness traces to his refusal to be locked into predictable, bebop-based patterns.” And, according to the Village Voice, “Moran is like no other pianist at work. His improvisations are dynamic, eruptive, keyed to the compositions at hand.” In addition to his albums as part of Lloyd’s quartet, Moran recorded Lost in a Dream for ECM with Paul Motian and Chris Potter, a collection of ballads taped live at the Village Vanguard.