Billed as a ten-year celebration of Lloyd's New Quartet featuring Eric Harland
, Reuben Rogers
and Jason Moran
, this 2016 live set actually marked the quartet's first extended tour in over three years and its first release since the extraordinary Athens Concert
(ECM, 2011) -an indication of the difficulties of keeping together a working group of contemporary stars.
Inevitably perhaps, this set draws heavily from Lloyd's lovingly dog-eared songbook, yet an exercise in nostalgia, this is not. The quartet's intuitive interplay and improvisational elasticity, bristling with kinetic energy, has an undeniably contemporary feel. The music is steeped in jazz's roots-music traditions for sure, yet bending and shaping the forms to create something wholly personal.
The seventeen-minute version of "Dream Weaver" was recorded at the 50th Montreux Jazz Festival in June 2016
, fifty years almost to the day that Lloyd performed at the inaugural MJF with his first classic quartet. The free-form rumbling and jangling of the first seven minutes feels like a limbering up exercise, though fascinating in its nuances, its waves and crests both bruising and tender. The emergence of the melody marks a launching pad for a more disciplined, though equally intense collective journey, led by Lloyd's searching tenor. Moran's melodic vamp anchors the quartet as it pulls hard at the leash, the pianist taking over with a frenzied solo tempered by flickers of the defining melody, like lightning flashes illuminating storm-clouds.
The six other compositions were recorded a month later at The Lensic in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Part Five, Ruminations," with its simultaneous, everybody soloing/nobody soloing feel, sways between swing and more abstract terrain, the tensions epitomized by Rogers' walking bass lines and Harland's looser limbed, animated aesthetics. Moran's intervention, likewise, pits passionate discourse against rhythmic control, before Lloyd's tenor imposes a hush like intimate prayer. "Nu Blues" sees the quartet skip and strut with all the pronounced drama and playfulness of a Thelonious Monk
exploration. Lloyd's tenor soars, imbued with the spirit of all the Memphis blues and R&B legends with whom he worked the chitin circuit in the late 1940s and 1950s.
The brushes-driven ballad "How Can I Tell You" is a stone Lloyd has been gently polishing for decades, appearing on his debut as leader, Discovery!
(Atlantic, 1964). Here, the leader is at his most persuasive, his caressing tone and emotional warmth evoking Lester Young
an early influence. Moran's reply is no less alluring, on a tune where less is more. Dulcimer-like strummed piano strings, bass ostinato and a simple back beat provide the platform for Lloyd's grooving flute on "Tagore on the Delta." This infectious version is light-years away from the rather airy original of half a century ago, particularly when Moran weighs in with a fiery, gospel-infused attack.
The title track, a Lloyd composition from Chico Hamilton
's 1963 album of the same name, sees the quartet dance around the Latin-tinged melody. Probing bass, lashing drum patterns, dashing piano cadenzas and scurrying tenor lines blur the lines between departure and arrival on this heady workout. "Shiva Prayer," with its rumbling mallets, elegiac piano and arco drone, is a classic Lloyd incantation, led by the leader's gently keening tenor.
Whether or not Lloyd's New Quartet will ever tour extensively again, it doubtless ranks as one of the best jazz quartets of the new millennium. Passin' Thru
provides vibrant proof of that, and sits comfortably alongside Lloyd's very best live albums.