Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: Hagar's Song - Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran

Personnel: Charles Lloyd: tenor and alto saxophones, bass and alto flutes; Jason Moran; piano, tambourine

Hagar’s Song starts out with Billy Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl,” whose theme Lloyd plays slowly on tenor with a gentle, lightweight tone free of vibrato, Moran accompanying with arpeggios.  Lloyd then briefly solos, employing a skittering improvisational style, running scales and playing flurries of notes over the horn.  After this loose improvisation by Lloyd, Moran plays a lovely, gospel-tinged solo section.  Lloyd returns to play the theme again to close the cut. 

“Mood Indigo” has Lloyd on tenor again, playing the theme at a swinging mid-tempo, after a Moran intro that feels transported from the 1940s.  Then Lloyd plays a vaguely Coltrane-esque solo, though his phrases seem somewhat haphazard.  Moran then plays a fun, Ellingtonian interlude, bordering on a stride style.  Lloyd returns to play the theme and some casual improvisation.

“Bess, You Is My Woman Now” starts with Lloyd playing the theme on tenor at a slow tempo and features Moran playing a dramatic, nearly classical-sounding improvisation.  Lloyd states the pretty theme of Joe Greene’s “All About Ronnie” slowly on tenor, after which Moran has a low-key interlude.  (I hesitate to call some of the sections Moran plays here “solos,” since they are deliberate and understated to the point of sounding pre-written.)  “Pictogram” features some free-form, enlivened improvising from Lloyd on alto sax.  Moran accompanies Lloyd with a walking bass line on piano after which lets loose a bit with an imaginative, angular solo.  Lloyd returns to tenor for the pretty ballad, “You’ve Changed.”  He and Moran change things up nicely at the end of the cut, with Lloyd playing the first half of the theme and Moran playing the second half of the theme by himself.

“Hagar’s Suite” begins with “Journey Up the River,” with Lloyd playing a vaguely Native American theme on bass flute, Moran eventually adding a bluesy accompaniment.  Moran takes over for a while with an insistent, soulful interlude, then Lloyd plays a higher-pitched theme, with Moran on tambourine.  The interplay between Lloyd and Moran here is meditative, but doesn’t contain much in the way of improvisational interest.  The cut has a pretty, shimmering close.

“Dreams of White Bluff” has Lloyd back on tenor, and, at this point, I was struck by how similar his tone on tenor is to his bass flute tone on “Journey,” showing just how soft his sound is on the saxophone.  This tune is melancholy and has a similar feel to the previous “Journey,” though a bit more like a spiritual.  Moran accompanies Lloyd with a series of gentle tremolos, and there is a fair amount of wandering, free-form improvisation before the tune ends meditatively.

“Alone” has Lloyd on alto flute accompanied by tambourine and single, repeated notes on the piano.  There is some urgency and drama in the duo’s playing before it moves seamlessly into “Bolivar’s Blues.”  Lloyd switches to alto sax for some slow improvisation, Moran then urging the saxophonist to pick up the pace with his insistent accompaniment, Lloyd’s playing then becoming more bluesy and ranging higher on the horn, probably his most interesting improvising on the recording. 

The last piece in “Hagar Suite’s,” “Hagar’s Lullaby,” has Lloyd playing a gentle, lyrical theme on alto sax followed by some slow improvisation that stays close to the theme, Moran playing drawn-out chords in the background. 

On Earl Hines’s “Rosetta,” after a spirited intro from Moran, Lloyd’s lines on tenor feel jubilantly unshackled after the close quarters of “Hagar’s Suite.”  Lloyd’s improvisation rambles over the tune and then it closes a bit wildly.  Moran then has some fun with the tune, twisting its traditional contours.  This cut is one of the more successful ones on the recording.

Lloyd does a touching reading of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” on tenor, with sensitive, exquisite backing from Moran.  (I’d like to hear Moran play this song by himself sometime.)  The recording closes with a pretty straight reading by the duo of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

Hagar’s Song is somewhat like a mirror image of Wayne Shorter’s Without a Net.  Whereas Shorter’s recording has a long, highly composed piece in the middle, flanked by the group’s more typical loosely structured pieces, Lloyd’s recording has a free form, loosely structured suite in its center, which is flanked by more traditional, composed pieces and more structured improvisations.  But in my view, Without a Net is a much stronger collection of music than Hagar’s Song.  Lloyd’s improvisations on this recording strike me as generally aimless and one-dimensional.  In this setting, even Moran seems encumbered; his playing doesn’t have nearly the ingenuity and focus it evinces on other recordings (such as the Walter Smith’s III and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Apex, both reviewed here on AJS).  The playing overall, though gentle and pleasant, is listless.  In my view, sad to say, Hagar’s Song just doesn’t have much to offer to lovers of jazz saxophone or lovers of jazz in general.

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