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.”