The second of pianist Jason Moran’s concerts as SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director, performed last night at the SFJAZZ Center, was a 90-minute gig with Charles Lloyd played without intermission. Lloyd’s primary instrument was his tenor saxophone, but he made one venture into alto flute and another on soprano saxophone. The program, none of whose selections were announced, drew heavily upon Hagar’s Song, last year’s ECM duo recording of Lloyd and Moran, released shortly before Lloyd’s 75th birthday, March 15, 2013.
Both in the recording studio and on the stage, Lloyd makes a fascinating partner for Moran. Both have a comprehensive understanding of the workings of embellishment, but each applies that knowledge in a uniquely personal direction. As was evident last night in Moran’s few solo takes, he tends to think in terms of cellular motivic building blocks, even when his source material only really emerges through longer phrases. As a result his keyboard playing often reveals itself through emergent qualities: Embellishment begins by only faintly suggesting what is being embellished; but, as the improvisation continues, the suggestions gradually get more explicit. This is a bit reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s experiments with unfolding the variations before stating the theme.
Lloyd is fundamentally a melodist. Thus, while he has both the inventive and technical skills to embellish a tune on a note-by-note basis, he always wants to make sure that the tune registers with the listener. Since he shows a strong preference for the likes of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in choosing his tunes, one can appreciate the respect he shows to his sources.
His approach to embellishment therefore almost involves preceding each note with a flourish. That flourish can involve an elaborate sequence of arpeggios, runs, or a combination of the two. It’s a bit like introducing each note of the tune with a grace note and then pumping each of those grace notes up with steroids. To be fair, this approach to embellishment can be traced back to the Renaissance; and the young Arnold Schoenberg was particularly fond of it. (He thought the technique would make some of his harmonic innovations more palatable. Performers thought he was just making his stuff impossible to play.)
What made last night so intriguing was how well these decidedly different approaches to improvisation could cohabit the stage. They could unfold concurrently, with each performer working through his own ideas; but there was never any sense of conflict. Instead, what emerged might best be called a thematic landscape in which the source tune was a recognizable feature but only one among a rich diversity of other “sights.”
Furthermore, there was a freshness to it all, even for those (like myself) familiar with the Hagar’s Song recording. These were both musicians who believed that, once a particular approach to a tune had been recorded, it was time to seek out other approaches. The result was one of the most imaginative journeys of discovery to be packed into 90 minutes worth of time.