How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Not much could have gone wrong with this disc. Lloyd, one of jazz’s most distinctive tenor stylists, kept Billy Higgins and John Abercrombie on board from last year’s Voice In the Night, adding Brad Mehldau on piano and Larry Grenadier on bass. Abercrombie, however, only appears on four of the 12 tracks. Most of the session belongs to Mehldau, frankly. His duets with Lloyd on "Ballade and Allegro" and "The Monk and the Mermaid" feature some of his most sensitive work on record. Lloyd brings out contemplative qualities in this pianist that we haven’t quite heard before. Let’s not forget, though: One of Mehldau’s albums was titled Songs. Although he turned a lot of heads early on with his chops, he has distinguished himself as a masterful interpreter of melodies. He was therefore a perfect choice for this record, which could almost have been titled, "Charles Lloyd plays ballads."
Lloyd begins with a straightforward, elegant reading of "Georgia." Clearly, he’s not interested in striking hip poses. He goes on to lead his ensemble through two lesser-known Ellington pieces, "Black Butterfly" and "Heaven"; Strayhorn’s "Lotus Blossom"; two original ballads, "Figure In Blue" and "Lady Day"; and Cecil McBee’s "Song of Her," a throwback to Lloyd’s 1968 classic Forest Flower. It’s all there: Lloyd’s unique, glissando-laden phraseology, Mehldau’s harmonic nuances, unerring rhythmic support from Grenadier and the incredible Billy Higgins, and at times, pointed and eloquent guitarism from Abercrombie.
But the session ascends to another level entirely with the inclusion of two spirituals, "The Water Is Wide" and "There Is a Balm in Gilead." The latter features just Lloyd and Higgins, old friends, setting the melody starkly against a hypnotic drum chant. In addition, Lloyd’s closing "Prayer," written for Higgins during the time of his life-threatening illness back in 1996, features just the composer, Abercrombie, and guest bassist Darek Oles. (Oddly, the ECM press release is the only place where one will find Oles credited.) These tracks resonate with personal meaning and profundity. Without them, this would have been a solid ballads album. With them, it is something truly special.