Charles Lloyd New Quartet in San Francisco

Eric Benson By

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Charles Lloyd New Quartet
Herbst Theater
San Francisco
March 28, 2008

Is there a point at which deeply spiritual music becomes too ethereal for its own good? A point at which both message and music are lost on an earth-bound audience?

John Coltrane's late-career immersion in the spiritual through turning upward toward the transcendent stands as jazz's most famous litmus test for listeners' tolerance of such theological directions. Fans of albums like Interstellar Space and Ascension embrace Coltrane's cosmic quest— sometimes ascribing a divine consciousness to the musician himself—while critics of the movement point to the breakdown of traditional structure and harmony and hear noise in place of music.

Yet even on Coltrane's most outre recordings, there's an aspect of the music in which even the hardest skeptics can take solace: amid the celestial cacophony, Coltrane's tone remains bluesy and terrestrial. Coltrane's worldview at the end of his life may have been drastically different from that of the man who played tenor saxophone in the Miles Davis Quintet, but his tone was always grounded in the tradition. For many, even when the music stopped making sense, the sound remained powerfully familiar.

Charles Lloyd's March 28th performance at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco presented the audience with an antithetical reciprocal of this Coltrane paradox. Lloyd, who spent nearly two decades away from the jazz world practicing transcendental meditation and yoga, embraces the spiritual as fully as did Coltrane. Yet Lloyd's commitment doesn't come across in the structure, harmony, and instrumentation of his music— which, while fresh, are not atypical—but in his sound itself, a spacey and diffuse tone that transforms the tenor saxophone and even the singular taragato into alien instruments.

Lloyd has always had a breathy sound, yet now it's even lighter—flapping above the rest of the music like a tattered flag. In the San Francisco concert, breath gushed from out of the sides of Lloyd's mouth, adding a soft hiss to his wispy vibrato. Given his own inclinations toward the ethereal, Lloyd's selection of relatively down-to-earth band mates to complement his abstractions could not have been shrewder. Many adjectives can be used to describe the playing of pianist Jason Moran, but light and wispy are not among them. Moran can play tenderly, but he's a fundamentally percussive pianist with an affinity for dense voicings and crashing repetitive melodies.

Drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers both added propulsive grit to the music while keeping their playing sparse and direct. Harland's rhythmic dexterity was essential, bringing a swinging purpose to the music when it started to drift. On the slower numbers, like the Cuban ballad "Rabo de Nube," the pairing of fiery rhythm section and breathy elder statesman resulted in a synergistic fusion. Lloyd intoned his lines with sustained energy, eschewing romantic swooning if favor of a contemplative, delicate beauty. The integrity of his approach shined through.

Yet it was Moran's playing on these ballads that was the real revelation. Maybe it was the lack of his trademark fedora and designer chair rather than the presence of his new collaborator, but the pianist seemed less idiosyncratic and more focused than on previous occasions to this reviewer. In the past, his powerful hands have sometimes felt too heavy, as his buoyant rhythmic enthusiasm expresses itself in a tendency to run roughshod over his sense of touch. Accompanying Lloyd, Moran's playing had a far greater dynamic range. Each note was imbued with a new coherence and purpose, bringing fullness to the furious stomp that is a typical Moran improvisation.

Moran's mastery was in evidence throughout the night, though Lloyd's playing on the faster numbers was frustratingly insubstantial. His solos sounded fractured, rarely achieving a continuous, narrative whole. An elegant melodic phrase would be tossed to the wind, followed by a new idea that remained equally undeveloped. When Lloyd's solos came to a close, a series of pristine but disconnected lines left a listener with little in the way of a climax to celebrate.

There was plenty to admire in the Charles Lloyd New Quartet's San Francisco concert: Lloyd pushed his young rhythm section to a new plane of sensitivity; the compositions were elegant and flexible, allowing for both hard-driving rhythms and feathery melodic exploration; and the band played ballads with a beauty intolerant of sap. Yet, Lloyd's playing, if elegant, was too often aloof, leaving a feeling of hollowness set in even bolder, inescapable relief by the band's richness of spirit.

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