I run hot and cold when it comes to Charles Lloyd. His debt to early '60s Coltrane in instrumental and compositional style is so obvious and presented in such a blatantly adoring manner by Lloyd himself that it never fails to make me uncomfortable -- and quickly bored. The sincerest form of flattery? Perhaps. But it takes stronger listeners than myself to wade through yet another ten-plus minute modal vamp improv, a la Trane's 1961 "India," that regularly pervade Lloyd's ECM recordings. And don't get me started on the West Coast spiritualism and, worse, the maracas.
Yet when the time comes to caress a ballad, few tenor saxophonists possess Lloyd's concentrated power and heartfelt tone. Coltrane is still peeking through the notes, but Lloyd seems to be tapping into the earlier take-your-time stance of the sax giants of his youth. Whether Lloyd actually listened to Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster or Lester Young (how could he not?) is less the point than that he somehow absorbed a pre-bop aesthetic that imbues his most thoughtful work --be it a standard or even a free improvisation -- with a more personal sound and cogent ideas.
His next recording, "Mirror" (to be thoughtfully released on my birthday in September) has its share of lovely moments, notably a surprising take on Brian Wilson's "Caroline, No" that does justice and then some to the "Pet Sounds" classic. I applaud Lloyd for his occasional off-the-wall choices of repertoire, but they don't always work. ("God Give Me Strength, the stirring Bacharach-Costello ballad on "Voice In the Night" didn't come off at all, but then again, no one has been able to bring out its true luster other than Costello himself). Lloyd respects Wilson's winsome melody, yet extends the song's form, to winning effect, when he needs to.
It's on performances like this, and a few choice others including "I Fall In Love Too Easily" -- with the leader on equally effectual alto -- where I hear Lloyd, the authentic, unashamedly conservative stylist and not Lloyd, the unrepentant adulator.