06/28/08

Charles Lloyd Quartet at JVC - New York

On his recent albums, Jason Moran has been experimenting with samples of spoken speech as springboards for improvisation, using the rhythms and inflections of people talking as cues for his piano solos. In his new role as a member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Moran applied that approach to live spoken word during the band’s appearance at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York.

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Nick Ruechel

Charles Lloyd

The evening began with the U.S. poet laureate, Charles Simic, reading four poems about jazz and New York. During the final two poems, “Crepuscule with Nellie” (which shares its title with a ballad Thelonious Monk wrote for his wife) and “Two for Charles Lloyd,” the quartet came in quietly behind him, Lloyd murmuring in agreement on the tenor sax, Moran playing whole notes, each in a different, stranger voicing, Reuben Rogers dropping in strategic upright bass notes, and Eric Harland adding rattling hand percussion. “Late night talk on a tenor,” the poet in the gray thatched hair and rimless glasses read, “with the dead and the shadows they cast.”

Simic exited but the quartet kept playing, gathering momentum as it segued seamlessly into “Passin’ Thru,” the tune Lloyd had originally written as the title track of Chico Hamilton's 1962 album. The perky Latin theme was stated in the sweet, singing voice of Lloyd’s tenor, which then began to push the melody around, finally taking it outside for a bit of Coltranesque thrashing before bringing it back inside, tingling and refreshed. Perhaps inspired by Simic’s Monk poem, Moran attacked the song with Monk-isms, stabbing at the keyboard Chico Marx style to get off-kilter accents and intervals that were even more exaggerated than Monk’s own and yet just as musical.

Moran sat before a Steinway grand painted a radioactive shade of orange in a chair the same color. With the barest hint of a beard on his chin and a black-and-white sporting cap atop his head, Moran mostly kept his back to the audience, deferring to his illustrious elder. Lloyd wore a small-brimmed gray hat, dark shades and a wispy gray beard. He introduced several tunes with rambling, mumbling, stream-of-consciousness memories of his early days in Manhattan. His playing, however, was crisp and articulate, whether it was the tenor ballad “Requiem” or the flute showcase “Monk’s Danse.” He still had that gift for stating a striking melody, tying that figure into an avant-garde knot and then, like a vaudeville magician, unraveling the rope and returning the tune to its original lyricism.

Rogers and Harland were the perfect rhythm section, for they’re unusually tuneful. Rogers in particular was able to shift gears from the harmonic demands of accompaniment to the melodic demands of soloing better than most bassists. And Moran, though very different from Lloyd’s previous pianists (Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, Geri Allen, Brad Mehldau), proved just as appropriate. His sense of melody may be fractured and Monk-like, but it’s always there.

For the encore, the quartet played the title track of its only album together, “Rabo de Nube,” written by Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriquez. Lloyd delivered the lilting theme on his tenor sax in both full-chested ballad statements and breathy falsetto overtones. Lloyd’s three bandmates seemed more aggressive than they had been on the recording, obviously more comfortable with the music and their leader. Moran took apart the tune from “Rabo de Nube,” confident that both the music and the band were strong enough to survive his surgery.

On “Ramanujan,” Lloyd pulled out the tarogato, a clarinetlike Hungarian woodwind, almost as orange as Moran’s piano. The instrument had a nasal quality, not unlike Dewey Redman’s musette, that Lloyd exploited to give the piece a trancelike Asian feel. It was thus an easy segue into “Hymne to the Mother.” Lloyd sat down next to Moran for a bit of four-handed piano and then began reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita.

Here again was a chance for Moran to interact with spoken word. While Rogers kept up a droning figure on his bowed bass and Harland sang an “om”-like baritone drone, Moran stirred up a cloud of piano arpeggios that seemed to reverberate outward from Lloyd’s calm, sing-song voice.

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