Charles Lloyd alto and tenor saxophone, alto and bass flute
Jason Moran piano, tambourine
Produced by Charles Lloyd and Dorothy Darr
Recorded April 2012 at Santa Barbara Sound Design
Engineer: Dominic Camardella
Mastering: Bernie Grundman
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Speaking of an ECM production in terms of engineering is like speaking of a Van Gogh painting in terms of brushstrokes: the two are so intimately connected as to make their parsing arbitrary. Still, it bears mentioning that with Hagar’s Song the label has taken a fresh direction due to the insistence of its artists on a naked sound. We hear it from breath one in Billy Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl,” which under the fingers of the album’s protagonists—saxophonist Charles Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran—awakens to a new dawn. We hear it in the close miking of that unmistakable tenor, in Moran’s pillow of chords filling the recording space with the close-knit statements befitting of the duo dynamic. Let this be a cue, then, to witness the growth of these kindred hearts, whose cause is just getting warmed up. So begins a helping of Lloyd’s personal favorites, which include many familiar tunes re-spun by the patina of his lyrical edge. His bold evocation of every theme reveals an artist funneling his attentions into hard-won integrity.
Lloyd’s notecraft is a spectrum of infatuation and rests comfortably in Moran’s edgy blend of styles. To characterize the latter as a blend of the old and the new, however, gets us off on the wrong foot. His nostalgia is of a different order. The feeling of entrenchment intensifies the more he works with Lloyd, who gives him both a context and the freedom to run around it. Moran’s balance is one of seeking and restraint, of plangent cry and heartfelt whisper. Whether in the old-time swing of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” or the haunting manifestations of the Gershwin classic “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” his roots remain strong and attract all sorts of wonders from the horn that inspires him. This would seem to inspire Lloyd in return. From the way he frames an octave before dropping into it all sorts of knots to be untangled to the skirting poetics of his angular original, “Pictogram,” his artistry gazes, bare and unblinking. For a concise summary of that very evolution, listen no further than “All About Ronnie.” Here: a prism with its own light.
We do a disservice in calling these renditions “soulful,” as if the tunes were not already so. Their timeless inherency is already set, leaving the patient duo to build whatever spontaneity is needed to bring their messages home. We hear this especially in “You’ve Changed,” which from the lips of Lady Day to George Michael has over the years settled in our bones, and for which Lloyd carries a unwavering torch of freedom through the forest of Moran’s discipleship. You’ll find no stone in this “Rosetta” (Earl Hines), because no translation is needed when caught up in the swing of things.
The session’s centerpiece, the five-part “Hagar Suite,” is dedicated to Lloyd’s great-great-grandmother. Taken from her parents and thrown into slavery at age 10, she was one of countless nameless faces in a river that has yet to dry. In Lloyd’s flute resides the quivering of her undying heart. It is the seed of protest, quiet, known only to those in whom it grows. The winds of change fan it like a flame, jumping from one ribcage to another until it sings. Like Moses in his basket, its melodies come from a land of fragments, of bodies broken and rejoined by the power of will. Moran matches Lloyd’s power of incantation with a ceremonial tambourine, which he plays in the hands or, in the painful lyricism of Part III, “Alone,” lays on the piano’s lower strings. It is the tinkling of a faraway dream, a cicada calling to the sands as if every granule were an eye. Through a veil of patience, the duo molds soil into something upright, that it might wander of its own volition from sea to shining sea in search of the wisdom of age…if not the age of wisdom.
If “Hagar Suite” is the album’s multi-chambered heart, then “I Shall Be Released” is its blood. The genius of this Bob Dylan tune has never run so thick as it does here. The same holds true for “God Only Knows.” This insightful look into the mind of Brian Wilson pays homage to Lloyd’s session work with the Beach Boys in a spatial epilogue that carries us far over the horizon to a place where children are forever safe and their parents shed tears only by way of joy, knowing they have everything they need in each other.
Because of the nature of this project, talking about the musicianship in terms of “solos” is moot. Lloyd and Moran are two pans of the same scale, the chain of which hangs from a tall, tall hand of justice. Hagar’s Song not only shows great technical intuition, but also a multifarious instinct for programming. In assembling this set, they have handpicked from the best and added to it, living in the shadows of the originals as much as in their light, and through it all with a love clear as sky.
This is jazz at its most embryonic, the fulfillment of wishes standing the test of time. Like Lloyd’s offshoots, it never strays from the core of what needs to be said. No room for poker faces; only the genuine rake it in.
(To hear samples of Hagar’s Song, click here.)