Yet his last half dozen recordings for Manfred Eicher's ECM label culminating in the Fall '02 release of Lift Every Voice has taken him far beyond the trappings of heralded jazz elder and into the territory of creating vital, timely music. The double disc is so poignant and unified in statement that it could only be construed as a response to September 11th. His recent week of shows at the Blue Note added to the theme.
In content and format, the evening's music that I heard was obviously intended not just as musical entertainment but as artistic even political - commentary. Featuring compositions from Lift Every Voice, Lloyd concentrated on the global scope of the disc in performance, promoting a jazz multi-lateralism that took in not only the music of the East, but also of Cuba, Urban America and the South and the Arabic countries.
Of course, all of this can be traced to the lineage of Lloyd's sound. Having come up through the Memphis R&B ranks with Bobby Bland and B. B. King, he cut his jazz chops filling Eric Dolphy's formidable shoes in Chico Hamilton's stellar early 60's group. He joined up with the Adderley brothers Cannonball and Nat in 1964 before deciding to form his own pride of young lions. Lloyd with bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Jack DeJohnette and teenage pianist wunderkind Keith Jarrett recorded a series of albums culminating in the live 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival recording Forest Flower, a monstrous bestseller. The record tapped into the 'Summer of Love' zeitgeist capturing the band's juju of feel good Adderley soul with the bluster of Coltrane.
It's all still there, but tempered now through a less-is-more musical mantra informed by the saxophonist's Buddhism. In truth, it's a musical line one can trace to his earliest playing where Trane stoked the furious heat of an ever-rising flame, Lloyd concentrates on the light generated.
Opening his set with his own 'Requiem' from 1995's Voice in the Night disc, the leader had more on his mind than the piece's homage-to-Holiday origins. The creative exchange between the leader, longtime six-string partner John Abercrombie and pianist Geri Allen immediately revealed Lloyd's intention for the evening.
Introducing Cuban composer Silvio Rodriguez's 'Robo de Nube' , the leader mentioned that he had received the song in the mail from the composer three days after September 11th. Lloyd in his hip rasp quoted Rodriguez's lyrics: 'I wish I was a cloud and I could come down and wash your tears away.'
It wasn't necessary. As Lloyd unfurled the song's sailing theme, Allen held stable the boat beneath him and Abercrombie's six strings provided the wind. The Latin waltz provided all the three needed as requisite structure for a classic jazz standard subtle yet complex rhythmic and melodic changes with a deceptive openness that allowed for each individual stamp. Rodrigez's Te Amare, a tender lilting ballad that showed off Lloyd's sometimes-thin tone at its plaintive best, while Abercrombie showed again why he is one of jazz's pioneer guitarists with a solo of scampering arpeggios and harmonic parrying. Allen followed, her yin and yang style alternately muscular and rapturous - likewise showing why she is currently jazz's most gifted pianist.
After a showcase for flute ('Beyond Darkness'), Lloyd switched to the taragato, a Hungarian B-flat clarinet with resonant but brittle tone familiar to many through traditional gypsy recordings. (Lloyd's is a gift from Hungarian jazz reed player Mr. Mihaly Dresch). 'Hafez, Shattered Heart' is an extended cadenza for the instrument, with Lloyd building on elusive scales, snaking in and out with the mystery, passion and nomadic grace of the gypsies.
As he set down the taragato and took up his tenor, the band settled into the perfect response for what had just been conjured. As bassist Robert Hurst walked a soulful groove, Allen vamped just behind his throbbing beat. Lloyd and Abercrombie entered on the seductive unmistakable groove of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On,' sparring and trading fours over the buoyant theme. More than a nod to his soulful past, in juxtaposing the dark virtuosity of 'Hafez' with the bright buoyancy of Gaye's tune, Lloyd was asking the obvious to a world poised for war. It acted as a release, shedding light on the darkness with its major chords and 4/4 beat and it was impossible not to move. I was waiting for the tables to be scattered to make way for a dance floor. Lloyd himself was shaking it and making his own onstage.
Of course, that could have been the end. But what followed, brought perspective and added a poignant note to an already revelatory evening of music. In its early placement on Lift Every Voice Billy Preston's 'You Are So Beautiful' is wisely brief and manages to transcend the saccharine pop of its origins with a plaintive presentation of the melody straight, simple and void of any Smooth Jazz histrionics. Placed at the end of the set, it became a noble truth of affirmation in the face of adversity.
As Lloyd concluded the opening theme, Allen took over with poignant focus finding rhapsody in the simple chords and weaving a quilt of complex harmony from the threadbare tune. Her playing was alternately sparse and elegant, resonant and hushed. The band dropped out entirely and, as Lloyd turned in rapt, beaming attention to his pianist, it never returned. It was a perfect ending - open-ended, half-finished, to-be-continued. And Lloyd knew enough to leave it be and let beauty have the night.