|AMG Review by David R. Adler (4):
Like 1999's Voice in the Night, The Water Is Wide features Charles Lloyd in the company of one of his dearest friends, drummer Billy Higgins, who would pass away less than a year after the album's release. Guitarist John Abercrombie also remains on board, but Lloyd extends the group's generational span by recruiting two younger players: pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier. The album begins with a straightforward, elegant reading of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia." Lloyd goes on to lead his ensemble through two lesser-known Ellington pieces, "Black Butterfly" and "Heaven"; Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom"; two original ballads, "Figure In Blue" and "Lady Day"; and Cecil McBee's "Song of Her," a track from Lloyd's 1968 classic, Forest Flower. It's a glorious amalgam of sound: the leader's unique, glissando-laden phraseology, Mehldau's harmonic nuances, unerring rhythmic backbone from Grenadier and the majestic Higgins — and only occasionally, pointed and eloquent guitarism from Abercrombie. The session ascends to an even higher level with the inclusion of two spirituals, "The Water Is Wide" and "There Is a Balm in Gilead." The latter features just Lloyd and Higgins, starkly setting the melody against a hypnotic drum chant. In addition, Lloyd's closing "Prayer," written for Higgins during a life-threatening episode back in 1996, features just the composer, Abercrombie, and guest bassist Darek Oles. (Oddly, Oles' credit is relegated to the fine print.) These tracks, most of all, resonate with personal meaning and profundity.
***** 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