When jazz historians look back on this era, one of the things they’ll highlight is the transcendent role played by two young piano greats in support of two resurgent tenor legends: Danilo Pérez in Wayne Shorter’s quartet and Jason Moran in Charles Lloyd’s. It’s difficult to overestimate the imprint the pianists have made on these special bands while serving the sound and vision of the leaders.
The unique give-and-take between Lloyd and Moran comes into bold relief on Hagar’s Song, their first duo album following three with the quartet, the last of which also featured Greek singer Maria Farantouri. Lloyd, who turned 75 in March, and Moran, 38, couldn’t have more different artistic resolutions: The saxophonist thrives on a centered, spiritually driven, Zen-like approach, sticking close to melodies that he worries with slippery arpeggios and sudden thickenings of tone, while the pianist is a rhythmically driven innovator with an appetite for music from all eras and genres.
What Lloyd and Moran share is an unerring ability to get to the emotional heart of a song, and that’s where their contrasting attacks converge, whether plugging into the bluesy melancholy of the Billie Holiday staple “You’ve Changed” or stepping out freestyle on Earl Hines’ “Rosetta,” which Lloyd heats with streaming notes and Moran lifts with buoyant, Hines-like clusters.
Hagar’s Song is essentially two albums in one: a selection of smartly reworked jazz standards and pop classics, and a nearly 30-minute tone poem, Hagar Suite. From a programming standpoint, it might have made more sense to put the song treatments together rather than have them divided by the suite. Atmospherically and thematically, the five-part work inhabits a different sphere. In it, Lloyd reflects on a painful chapter in his family history: the sale of his great-great-grandmother from one Southern slave owner to another when she was 10. A cycle of anger, mourning, resilience and ultimate redemption, it draws upon African-American spirituals, Native-American folk and Eastern mysticism. Lloyd alternates between alto and bass flutes and alto and tenor saxophones, while Moran plays as much of a percussive role as a harmonic one, projecting dark emotion with hammered block chords and repeated bass notes.
But it’s difficult to resist an album that opens with two songs from the Ellington canon—a spare, caressing “Pretty Girl” (the Strayhorn gem better known as “The Star-Crossed Lovers”) and a stride-kissed, wide-open arrangement of “Mood Indigo”—and closes with heartfelt renditions of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.” No artist is more qualified to bridge jazz standards and ’60s rock classics than Lloyd. The most popular jazz artist during the original psychedelic era, he played on recordings by the Beach Boys (as well as the Doors and Canned Heat) before disappearing in the ’70s. Since staging his remarkable comeback in the ’90s, he has refined his tenor sound to sometimes-ghostly effect, making up for his lack of lungpower with his luminous intensity.
The Dylan and Beach Boys covers draw power from their simplicity. With his gentle reading of the melodies, Lloyd turns “I Shall Be Released” into a heartfelt memorial for Levon Helm (who immortalized the song with the Band) and converts “God Only Knows” from a romantic ode to a spiritual one. On both pop classics, Moran plays a stripped-down supporting role, accenting the songs with taut, chiming notes and subtle gospel accents. But he has the last word: a perfect classical flourish at the end of “God Only Knows” that leaves artists and listeners alike in a state of grace.