Given that Charles Lloyd has been recording for Manfred Eicher's ECM label since 1989, it seems odd that Rabo de Nube (translation: Tail of a Cloud) is his first live quartet outing for the imprint, though he's done so in other combinations. Yet, given that this recording was issued a mere four days before the great saxophonist's 70th birthday, it is also a full circle of sorts for the Lloyd Quartet. Most of Lloyd's early quartet albums were recorded live for Atlantic between 1966 and 1968, seven in total, with the live band recording its first date over 40 years ago and featuring a young Keith Jarrett as its pianist. This association became a blueprint of sorts for a lineage of his subsequent pianists who have all gone on to their own measures of excellence as leaders: Michel Petrucciani, Bobo Stenson, Brad Mehldau, and Geri Allen. Jason Moran, the pianist here, is a leader in his own right, having also played with Wayne Shorter and Lee Konitz, to name just two; more importantly, his teachers offer a clue as to how his highly individual voice was developed -- Andrew Hill, Jaki Byard, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Moran joins Lloyd and longtime -- and immensely gifted -- drummer Eric Harland (who went to high school with Moran in Houston) and new bassist Ruben Rogers, who has previously been a member of groups led by the late Jackie McLean, Roy Hargrove, and Mulgrew Miller.
Recorded in Basel during the band's European tour in 2007, the band takes a very different approach to some familiar tunes. For starters, it has to do with style: Moran is a more physical player than many of the pianists Lloyd has employed in the past; his playing is more chord-oriented and percussive, less elegant and soulful than Allen's perhaps, less ornate than Petrucciani's, and certainly less contemplative than Stenson's. The material choices are wide-ranging. There's the hard-blowing "Prometheus," on which Lloyd and Moran walk the margins of free jazz as Harland pushes them toward it and Rogers holds down a flowing rhythmic tempo, elaborating on the choruses juxtaposing rhythm and harmonic investigation. Another blower on the set is "Sweet Georgia Bright," which Lloyd has played live in the past, but was first recorded when he was a member of Cannonball Adderley's group in 1964 with pianist Joe Zawinul. Moran's funky, hard-driving solo and the interplay of the rhythm section are remarkable. Lloyd's immense ability to soar with a nugget like this, influsing it with new fire is an asterisk that highlights his place as one of the true (if largely unsung) masters of the horn. Lloyd's alto flute gets a beautiful workout on "Booker's Garden," written for classmate Booker Little. His lyricism is only eclipsed by his deep soul groove -- which Moran takes to the bank in his own solo that lends the tune a different dynamic, one much bolder and centered in the middle of the keyboard. The playing by Rogers on the track is beautiful, using a Caribbean rhythmic pulse that allows Harland to dance around the soloists and make the backbeat slippery and fluid.
The closing title track was offered in a live quintet version on Lift Every Voice, the pickup band album recorded four days after 9/11. This one is quieter, sweeter, and more lyric and gentle, and a perfect way to end a show -- it is also the only non-original on the set. Fans of Lloyd's taragato playing will not be disappointed; it makes a grand appearance on the lengthy "Ramanujan." Moran's interaction and contrapuntal rhythmic exchanges with Harland are something to behold here; they push around and through one another in a call-and-response interchange that is subtle but forceful nonetheless. Rogers' way of playing between these two is like that of a telephone wire, bringing it all together. Of the seven tunes here, five are over ten minutes long. In other words, there is a lot of improvisation going on, but it is all deeply communicative and lyrical -- Lloyd's trademark for the last five decades as a composer, soloist, arranger, and bandleader. Ultimately, Rabo de Nube is yet another essential Lloyd offering from ECM. His sense of adventure is greater than ever, and his embrace of the tradition is equaled by his willingness to stretch it, bend it, turn it every which way but break it -- this band, with its energy and commitment to new jazz, is well-suited for that task and Moran certainly adds to the bounty considerably. Lloyd shows no signs of slowing down or simple contentment as he ages, and we are all the more fortunate for it.