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Charles Lloyd: The Water is Wide

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Charles Lloyd, whose curious career has found him initially embraced equal parts by the flower power crew and by those yearning for spiritual jazz expression, is an affable entrant on the scene each time he deigns to record a new date. Never a prolific recording or touring artist, he has maintained a mystique about him that belies his airy, somewhat introverted approach to the tenor sax and his cautiously low profile. He remains reverent to the spirits that are never very far from his consciousness. One such spirit is Billy Higgins, the living embodiment of elegantly swinging, subtly accented drumming. Though the other band members rotate their appearances on these tracks-one rhythm section is pianist Brad Mehldau and his trio bassist Larry Grenadier, the other assemblage features guitarist John Abercrombie and second bassman Darek Oles-Higgins’ constant presence is a source of continuous rhythmic inspiration for the improvisers.

The Water Is Wide finds Lloyd applying his low-key tenor and lovely unassuming tonality to serene melody making for the most part. Hoagy Carmichael’s enduring “Georgia” opens the proceedings with a hushed reverence. The warmth that permeates this disc is palpable and real. Lloyd-heads from the ’60s will delight in his reprise of Cecil McBee’s “Song of Her” from the leader’s Jarrett-DeJohnette-McBee band days. Duke Ellington’s sumptuous “Black Butterfly” is joined in a Ducal pairing with an apropos reading of the master’s celestial “Heaven” from the “Sacred Music Concerts.” The latter calls upon Mehldau’s considerable meditative gifts as they imply the melody in duet. The Lloyd originals include a paean to “Lady Day,” an abiding influence on the tenorist, and a “Prayer” for Billy Higgins, written when the drummer was hospitalized in ’96. A deeply felt “There Is a Balm in Gilead” sums up Lloyd’s spiritual intent with this graceful outing.