Wide Waters: The 1999 Charles Lloyd L.A. Sessions (ECM 1734 & 1784)

In the winter of 1999, tenorist Charles Lloyd drew upon the personnel of his acclaimed Voice In The Night, retaining from that session guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Billy Higgins, adding to them for the first and only time pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier, the latter of Mehldau’s eponymous trio. Recorded in Los Angeles, the tunes were split and released in 2000 and 2001 as The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins, respectively. And while the latter’s cover art is a negative image of the former’s, they are moved to action by the same invisible heart.

The Water Is Wide

Charles Lloyd
The Water Is Wide

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone
Brad Mehldau piano
John Abercrombie guitar
Larry Grenadier double-bass
Darek Oles double-bass
Billy Higgins drums
Recorded December 1999, Cello Studios, Los Angeles
Engineer: Michael C. Ross
Produced by Charles Lloyd and Dorothy Darr

Listeners are guaranteed to have Georgia and more on their minds when Hoagy Carmichael’s classic song—made famous by Ray Charles and stripped down here to pure melody—leads off The Water Is Wide with its sweet molasses undercurrents and soulful glow. Lloyd’s signature pop, periodic and delicate, adds punctuation to every phrase in this beautiful trio setting. Half of the album, in fact, pays tribute to songs that have moved Lloyd at one point or another in his long career, as well as to those that have burrowed into his heart. Of the latter is the title track, a Scottish folk tune, which in Lloyd’s arrangement posits Abercrombie inside Higgins’s steam-powered brushwork. Other stops along this migratory journey of things past include a bluesy take on Duke Ellington’s “Black Butterfly,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” a piano-driven “Song Of Her” (Cecil McBee), and the polished bronze of “Heaven” (from Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert). Yet nowhere is the feeling so intimate as in “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” which pairs only the bandleader and Higgins in the cleft of a parting sea. It is the album’s zenith and sign of things to come in Which Way is East.

A variety of Lloyd’s own tunes rounds out the set. “Ballade And Allegro,” written as incidental ballet music, is a veritable supernova regressing to its planetary state and showcases his penchant for emotional directness. Mehldau balances light and dark in perfect proportion, as he does also in “The Monk And The Mermaid,” the album’s other, decidedly aquatic, duet. Together, he and Lloyd mend broken fins and make them swim, iridescent and thirsting for brine. Lloyd re-stretches the canvas in “Lady Day,” a smooth tribute to Billie Holiday, before Abercrombie returns for “Figure In Blue,” swapping constellations with Lloyd in a laid-back vibe. The guitarist joins also in a “Prayer” to Higgins, who had a few years before this recording survived life-threatening health problems. Bassist Darek Oles also guests in this piece of suspension and separation.

Hyperion With Higgins

Charles Lloyd
Hyperion With Higgins

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, taragato, maracas
Brad Mehldau piano
John Abercrombie guitar
Larry Grenadier double-bass
Billy Higgins drums
Recorded December 1999, Cello Studios, Los Angeles
Engineer: Michael C. Ross
Produced by Charles Lloyd and Dorothy Darr

“The idea is like with the old Southern preacher,” says Lloyd of Hyperion with Higgins. “You go low and you get high and then you catch fire.” Which is perhaps why his originals comprise the entire program of this second installment—in them is a hearth of coals.

Higgins continues to shine this time around, lifting Lloyd to brighter evocation in the title track and lighting not a few fireworks with his sticks. That unbreakable dialogue continues in “Secret Life Of The Forbidden City,” in which Abercrombie also broadens his wingspan. The guitarist moves with even more pleasure in “Dancing Waters, Big Sur To Bahia” and goes classic in “Miss Jessye,” mixing just enough sugar and spice to keep everything nice. Marvelous also is the geometric pianism. On that note, there’s no mistaking the synergy of Mehldau and Grenadier in “Darkness On The Delta Suite,” a return to roots that works on every level. Their creeping, marshmallow texture, combined with Lloyd’s campfire crisp, clothes the suite with ragged style. Grenadier kicks off a solid groove in “Bharati.” In this one, Lloyd flirts with captivation over Mehldau’s fertile ground, lifting themes like a morning fog, before “The Caravan Moves On” opens the mind in a plains-drifting rite with Higgins. The introduction of guitar and bass adds figures to this desert in slow and steady progress. Abercrombie lobs his characteristic catcalls into an azure sky, Lloyd’s tárogató echoing all the while like a dream held on to just long enough to taste.

Hyperion with Higgins is brimming with warm spirit. Lloyd has honed his lyricism like a blade so fine it cuts hatred until only the shape of love is left. This spirit possesses the melodic inventiveness of his improvisers. Their vocabularies are the fresh to his familiar. Sadly, these sessions further represent one of Higgins’s last recordings before his death in May of 2001. And in that sense, they will forever hold vigil in his name.

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