Recording of September 2000: The Water is Wide

CHARLES LLOYD: The Water is Wide
Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; John Abercrombie, guitar; Larry Grenadier, Derek Oleszkiewicz (one track), bass; Billy Higgins, drums
ECM 1734 (CD). 2000. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Michael C. Ross, eng. AAD. TT: 68:29
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Charles Lloyd has made seven recordings for ECM since 1989, and they constitute one of the abiding bodies of work in late-20th-century jazz. They sustain a continuity of creative inspiration that few albums of improvised music reach even for moments, and they establish Lloyd as one of the living masters of the tenor saxophone.

It is surprising that the two most recent of these recordings, Voice in the Night (1999) and now The Water is Wide, are the strongest of the seven, and yet each introduces new personnel. It is surprising because the quartet that made the first five ECM albums, featuring the great Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and drummer Billy Hart, was one of the finest small jazz ensembles of its era, and its achievements were collective.

For the new album, Lloyd uses two players who are essentially new to him. They are Brad Mehldau, widely regarded as the most promising under-30 pianist in jazz, and a brilliant young bassist, Larry Grenadier. Two players return from Voice in the Night: guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Billy Higgins [who sadly passed away in May 2001 following complications with a liver transplant.—Ed.].

The Water is Wide is made up entirely of ballads—a risky programming decision. The danger is that the unvarying slow pace will falter into stasis. Lloyd transcends this potential pitfall because he conducts a journey, and because his voice on his reed instrument, even when it whispers, smolders, always on the edge of breaking into flame.

Another notable aspect of Water is the presence of so much material not written by Lloyd. His first six ECM albums contained exactly two standards, but only five of Water's 12 songs are Lloyd originals. It is as if the move to new personnel, and the simpler, more stark musical contexts that the new players provide, inspire Lloyd to encounter truths that begin as other than his own.

The album opens with a version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia" that is astonishing—first that Lloyd would choose it, second that he unfolds previously unrevealed depths of poignance while staying so close to the melody. Lloyd's sound, pure and dark, is rich with bright overtones of connotation, an elevated form of human utterance as song. Mehldau announces himself with a statement that is also pristine and elemental, but containing only partial nuclei of the melody for reference. Billy Higgins (whom we can hear softly grunting in ecstasy), through small gestures with brushes, implies enough energy to float this music free.

The next piece is the title track, a Scottish folk song from the 18th century or even earlier. Lloyd's tone is like a welling-up from deep ground waters of being, sobs of sadness and joy. Abercrombie quietly scatters guitar, and all five players participate in something beyond time.

If there is a criticism of The Water is Wide, it is that the album is sequenced with these two pieces first, and what comes after inevitably feels like a step down, a subtle breaking of the spell. Still, that step down is to a level that, if lower, is still very high. On Lloyd's tribute to Duke Ellington, "Figure in Blue," it is revelatory to hear Mehldau encounter unfamiliar material. He evolves structures that sound predestined, even as he moves them in response to Lloyd's shifts of nuance. Lloyd's "The Monk and the Mermaid" is a nine-minute piano-tenor duet that traverses many paths, individual and interconnected, slowly escalating in intensity as it spirals and climbs. "There is a Balm in Gilead," an old spiritual, also slowly rises—with Lloyd, driven by Higgins, spilling over and crying out—before it subsides.

The Water is Wide is one of the first analog recordings that ECM has released since 1984. It was engineered by Michael C. Ross at Cello Studio in Los Angeles, and its sonic portrait is so correct, so meticulous in its lucidity, that it calls no attention to itself. This great music lives and breathes.—Thomas Conrad