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Charles Lloyd: Hyperion With Higgins

One is tempted to hone in exclusively on Billy Higgins’ ebullient playing-every rebound, roll and cymbal crash-throughout this satisfying companion piece to last year’s The Water Is Wide. Standing as the late, great drummer’s last recorded work, it’s only natural to focus in on his final statements in a long career permeated with smiles and an irrepressibly swinging spirit. But the work here is of such a piece that you can barely separate the parts from the overall fabric. Everything hangs together and flows so organically, from Larry Grenadier’s near subliminal bass lines to Brad Mehldau’s crystalline piano statements to John Abercrombie’s warmly fingerpicked guitar lines, all in the service of Lloyd’s resplendent compositions, each a thing of grace and fragile beauty.

A subtle Brazilian strain runs through the mellifluous opener “Dancing Waters, Big Sur to Bahia (for Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso),” which has the tenor saxophonist affecting a mellower pose (more John Klemmer than John Coltrane) than on other tracks here. “Bharati” is more dynamic, featuring the kind of forceful, fluid scalar runs that Lloyd is noted for since 1966’s Forest Flower. The piece is also underscored by some particularly brilliant tempo shifts and percussive coloring by Higgins, who shifts nimbly back and forth between 12/8 and 4/4.

One of the most uplifting moments on this collection happens on “Secret Life of the Forbidden City,” and again, it centers on Higgins. Coming out of Mehldau’s unaccompanied solo piano interlude two minutes in, the piece heads into a straight 4/4 swinging mode at the three-minute mark. To hear Higgins’ ride cymbal pulse in combination with his idiosyncratic/hip snare statements on this kind of midtempo groove is truly one of the joys of jazz. This is classic Billy Higgins. Savor the memory. Both Lloyd and Mehldau respond to Higgins’ syncopated effervescence with some of their most spirited playing on the record.

Lloyd digs deep on “Miss Jessye,” which features some fine call-and-response from Abercrombie on the intro before seguing to a groovy kind of soul-jazz groove that inspires tenor work from Lloyd that falls somewhere between John Coltrane and Booker Ervin. Abercrombie also gets off a blues-drenched guitar solo here, setting the tone for one of Mehldau’s more soulful solo expressions.

Another highlight on the collection, the loose, free-spirited “Hyperion With Higgins” with its daring, extended drums-tenor intro, plays to another of Higgins’ strengths and also features some of Lloyd’s most forceful playing here (definitely more John Coltrane than John Klemmer).

The somber 12-and-a-half-minute “Darkness on the Delta Suite” takes its time to develop, drawing from spirituals, blues and free-jazz references along the way, and featuring some virtuosic turns from both Lloyd and Abercrombie. “Dervish on the Glory B” is a jaunty calypso number that sounds like as good a candidate for an audience sing-a-long as Lloyd has in his repertoire. And the album closes on a world- beat note with “The Caravan Moves On,” performed by Lloyd on taragato (sounds like a soprano sax) and with Higgins laying down a hypnotic groove on hand drum that sounds part Papa Jo, part Gnawan. Abercrombie’s quicksilver solo here emphasizes the kind of nontempered statements heard in Middle Eastern music as the piece in general conjures up images of Bedouins traveling across the desert.

A spiritual vibe and some very spirited interplay permeate this inspired collaboration.

Originally Published