Early autumn

Nov 1, 2000 at 12:00 am

Charles Lloyd’s latest CD finds the veteran saxophonist in excellent form and is surely among the most satisfying recordings in his discography, which now spans five decades. Joining Lloyd on this session are Brad Mehldau, piano; John Abercrombie, guitar; Larry Grenadier, double bass; and Billy Higgins, drums.

Selections include arrangements of two traditional melodies, five Lloyd originals and five standards by Hoagie Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Cecil McBee. This repertoire is presented in a thoughtfully ordered progression (and mix) of tempos and tonalities that together comprise a de facto suite.

Lloyd’s reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” on the opening track sets the tone for the entire album, which is largely given over to lyric — sometimes wistful, sometimes astringent — meditations on the ballad form. Much of the time, Lloyd stays close to the stated melody, relying on his tonal palette and restrained dynamics to reveal the emotional core of his repertoire.

This approach is augmented by his familiar, but effective use of alternating rubato and double-time passages, and his equally familiar penchant for impressionistic musings. While Coltrane’s influence on Lloyd remains decisive, particularly in his ballad playing, there are audible traces of Lester Young and Sonny Rollins here as well. Hence, Lloyd’s own voice on tenor may be heard as a “private blend” of these acknowledged masters.

Highlights, in addition to “Georgia,” include “Lotus Blossom,” “There is a Balm in Gilead” and two originals: “Ballad and Allegro” and “The Monk and the Mermaid,” the latter an unlikely if compelling homage to Debussy and Monk, a kind of “Après-midi d’un Thelonious.” Also noteworthy is Cecil McBee’s “Song of Her,” a haunting ballad that hinges on bassist Grenadier’s elegant pizzicato playing and which has been in Lloyd’s repertoire since the mid-’70s.

Brad Mehldau’s playing is consistently good news, as much for his thoughtfully supportive comping behind Lloyd as for his haunting intros and beautifully constructed solos. And master drummer Billy Higgins is impeccable throughout. Note especially his handiwork on Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” in waltz time, and his virtuosic playing on “Balm in Gilead,” replete with a calypso interlude in the middle choruses. Higgins is arguably the real architect behind the structural as well as the musical coherence of the session.

The transitory brilliance, the coming chill and the memories of early autumn are upon us. This may be the perfect sound track for a reflective evening by the first fire of the season, with a cognac and someone special at hand.