Woodwind multi-instrumentalist Charles Lloyd has traversed considerable musical territory with nary a misstep across a dozen albums, since joining the ECM fold in 1989. Still, as undeniably fine as albums including Sangam (2006), Jumping the Creek (2005) and Which Way is East (2004) are, what Lloyd's been missing is a consistent line-up to rival his mid-1990s discs with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Billy Hart, in particular the definitive Canto (ECM, 1997).
Rabo De Nube continues a musical partnership with incendiary drummer Eric Harland that began on Jumping the Creek, but with the addition of bassist Reuben Rogers (who's toured with Lloyd for a couple of years, most notably at the 2007 Portland Jazz Festival) and pianist Jason Moran, Lloyd has a new quartet that not only equals his 1990s group, but in many ways surpasses it. The combination of Moran's extroverted sense of adventure and the unshakable yet completely pliant rhythm team of Rogers and Harland makes this the freest and most unfettered quartet of Lloyd's long career.
That doesn't mean that Lloyd has abandoned his sense of tradition. "Migration of the Spirit" starts with Rogers alone but, with his band mates gradually joining in as the mood becomes increasingly turbulent, ultimately resolves into a light yet visceral mid-tempo swing, providing Lloyd a fertile groove with which to layer his sometimes flighty but always focused tenor.
The lengthy "Prometheus" shifts between simmering freedom and high velocity swing, Moran supporting Lloyd with remarkably spartan dissonance, and playing it sparer still during Rogers' arco solo. But it's when the pianist takes the lead that he demonstrates the true value he brings to this quartet. Encyclopedic in scope, Moran begins economically, with a dark and near-classical lyricism that turns to expressionistic freedom before settling into the kind of unshackled virtuosity that made him the closest thing to an overnight sensation when he released his Blue Note debut, Soundtrack to Human Motian back in 1999.
Lloyd has often (and unfairly) been compared to John Coltrane and, although Trane's spirit looms unmistakably, especially during Lloyd's nimble solo on the up-tempo "Sweet Georgia Bright," his warmer tone and distinctive confluence of fluid sheets of sound with a clearly discernable melodicism renders such comparisons moot. Trane may have looked to the East for inspiration, but Lloyd's connection is more palpable during his a capella flute intro to the gently balladic "Booker's Garden" and on "Ramunjan," where Lloyd's use of the oboe-like tarogato is matched by an equally broad world view by Moran, Rogers and Harland.
Lloyd will be 70 a few days after Rabo De Nube's release on March 11, 2008, but if the music from this 2007 live performance is any indication, not only is he playing better than ever, but he's got a new quartet that, if it remains together, is sure to become the most memorable group in a career now nearing its sixth decade.
Personnel: Charles Lloyd: tenor saxophone, alto flute, tarogato; Jason Moran: piano; Reuben Rogers: double-bass; Eric Harland: drums, percussion.