|Reaching for Transcendence With a 5-Piece Ensemble
Published: 09 - 18 - 2001 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 6 NEW YORK TIMES
By BEN RATLIFF
Charles Lloyd's music isn't dense with arrangements. In the spirit of mid-1960's Coltrane, which is what it often sounds like, it puts big windows on its own creative process, opening itself up for maximum honesty and sometimes maximum danger. Mr. Lloyd, as a tenor saxophone improviser, has grace in his long, patient strokes, his lines festooned with arpeggios; he has a tenor saxophone tone that's thin, light, gorgeous and rare. What he doesn't have much of is a contingency plan.
The flip side of any improvised jazz aiming for transcendence -- and that idea, that very word, suggests Coltrane's influence -- is tedium. If you don't reach the high bar of exquisitely calibrated emotion that you've set for yourself, there's no scaffolding to protect you; you simply fall.
Mr. Lloyd's late set on Friday night at the Blue Note, reopened to a full house after three dark nights, was long -- two full hours -- and unusually tepid. It centered on music from his new album, ''Hyperion With Higgins'' (ECM), and used a slightly different band: aside from Mr. Lloyd, the guitarist John Abercrombie and the bassist Larry Grenadier, who are on the album, the pianist Geri Allen replaced Brad Mehldau, and Billy Hart replaced Billy Higgins, the master drummer to whom the album is dedicated.
The absence of Mr. Higgins on the bandstand -- he died last May -- wasn't the problem. Mr. Hart created the most arresting moments in the set; he can think outside of the clichés for normal jazz drumming, and at several points he entered improvised duets with band members in which he stayed away from the cymbals entirely, playing coiled little patterns on tom-toms and snare.
Mr. Abercrombie and Ms. Allen were more problematic because neither ever reached the emotional temperature that Mr. Lloyd points toward, and in their hands the guitar sounded merely like a guitar, the piano merely like a piano. Their contributions felt learned and rote, and it seemed not to be entirely their fault: they weren't used with much imagination, inserting solos exactly where you'd expect them, never locking into the music in any way.
As the concert wore on, going through a hippieish free-improvised portion with shakers and drone chords -- typical of Mr. Lloyd's performances -- there was a feeling of desperation: we'll do this until something sticks. But nothing did, and it was disheartening to see Mr. Lloyd's delicate sensibility come to a dead end.