The reedist Charles Lloyd, who turns 75 on March 15, is almost twice the age of pianist Jason Moran, but over the last few years the two musicians have developed a mutually fulfilling partnership. Moran, one of the most visionary composers, improvisers and conceptualists of his generation, has appeared on three of Lloyd’s albums since 2008, and with Hagar’s Song, they not only share equal billing for the first time, but they demonstrate that their artistic partnership has never been more simpatico and sublime.
The centerpiece of the album is Lloyd’s five-part titular suite, written for his great-great-grandmother who was taken from her parents in Mississippi and sold into slavery in Tennessee when she was 10 years old. It’s understandably the most solemn and sobering music on the collection: On the meditative opening section “Journey Up River,” Lloyd blows serene, measured melodies on bass flute, while “Dreams of White Bluff” adopts a tense, tightly-coiled energy, with both musicians shaping roiling lines that simmer in a narrow pitch range. Then, a tender, imploring melody emerges, ruptured by a turbulent, free jazz-inspired episode before the pair gather themselves back in. On some of the pieces, Moran underlines his keyboard rhythms with tambourine and heightens the percussive feel by reaching inside the piano and damping its strings to get an insistent, buzzing effect.
The suite is sandwiched by a diverse array of jazz standards and a couple of classic rock songs. Moran brings hints of stride to a gorgeous spin through Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” while Lloyd demonstrates his peerless ability at reshaping melodic phrases, making the standard “All About Ronnie” sound like an entirely new, equally tuneful and seductive composition. The ability to reinvent old material is a gift both musicians share, although they tend to go about it in different ways. Lloyd plays with melody and mood like molding clay, steeping his performance in the essential feel of the tune, but changing accents, restructuring lines, and digging into the harmony with an unceasing sense of curiosity — without ever sounding like he’s merely experimenting or trying things out. Moran, on the other hand, uses his deep investment in jazz history to give many of his performances an appealing post-modern charm; on a version of “Rosetta” by Earl Hines he seems to skip across generational jazz styles at will, never missing a beat. The album closes with tender renditions of “I Shall Be Released” — The Band’s Levon Helm died a few days before the pair went into the studio — and the Beach Boys ballad “God Only Knows,” which sends the collection home with an undeniably stunning, delicate benediction.