Hagar’s Song (ECM Records)
By Brian Arsenault
For his 75th birthday, Charles Lloyd has released a most beautiful album, Hagar’s Song, with pianist Jason Moran. Stated simply, if you listen to many albums over many months you will not find beauty of this recording’s equal.
Perhaps Lloyd has reached a point in his lengthy and luminous career that he knows when he picks up one of his saxophones or flutes that beauty is enough. It is.
Whether it’s Billy Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl” or Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” Duke Ellington’s classic “Mood Indigo” or Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” (a different kind of classic), Lloyd pays homage to great songs and expands our sensibility every time.
His playing of “You’ve Changed” made me think of Billie Holiday, then just made me thoughtful, then just made me still for a few minutes. That’s rare.
He dedicates “I Shall Be Released,” made famous by The Band, to Levon Helm and calls him a “very soulful man.” To use the cliché accurately, it takes one to know one.
Lloyd is not one of those stand offish, only my music matters, kind of artists. He’s played with everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Cannonball Adderley to the Beach Boys to Keith Jarrett to Robbie Robertson and he brings an appreciation of all he’s heard to this piece of work. Yet it is all still him, a unique and distinguished musician.
And using Moran as his “band” only enhances the notes between spaces. When the album arrived, I thought, no bass, no drummer. How will this work? It works, forgive the overuse, beautifully.
Moran provides “percussion” and bass with his notes and chords and also terrific alternate leads between the silences and Lloyd‘s solos. No mean challenge when the horn player weaves magic at every turn, which can be three right turns in a row, Lloyd tells us.
The background release accompanying the advance of the album quotes Ornette Coleman as saying a few years ago that “Charles is playing really beautiful [there’s that word again]. He’s expressing the qualities of what we experience. Trying to make a contribution to the quality of life. . .”
That’s about right.
With all the respect addressed above, conscience requires me to say that I find the least satisfying and least accessible part of the album what Lloyd probably considers the centerpiece, “Hagar Suite.” This is his five part tribute to his great-great grandmother who was snatched away from her parents at the tender age of 10 to be sold to a plantation owner in another state who eventually impregnatee her.
Lloyd knows that however horrible slavery itself, the most horrifying part is to remove a child from her parents at such a young age. The individual matters most to a true humanitarian.
Perhaps because it is such a personal vision, Lloyd moves at times into contemplations that are so much his own the listener must perforce stand outside. Or perhaps more listens are required.
I can’t escape the notion, though, that the suite is perhaps the basis of an American symphony and should have been so treated in an album of its own. The great American songs on the album. drawn from so many sources, are what makes it so remarkable in my mind.
That’s for each listener to determine, of course. Beauty is after all in the eye of the beholder, to quote one source, and beauty is what pleases, to quote another.
Wondrous and precious stuff here.
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Jason Moran photo by Tony Gieske.
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