CHARLES LLOYD: ‘The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow’ (Blue Note)

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What better way is there for a musician to celebrate his or her 86th birthday than by releasing a new studio album? Or in Charles Lloyd’s case, a generously expansive double album? Most octogenarians are grappling with the immutable law of diminishing returns that come with old age, but Lloyd is a jazz veteran who exudes a musical vitality that seems to suggest he has been secretly drawing nourishment from the fountain of eternal youth. The optimistically titled The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow is the Memphis-born musician’s first studio venture since 2017. Among its fifteen tracks are six new Lloyd compositions, proving that old age is no barrier to inspiration and creativity. To underline his age-defying heroics, Lloyd’s tenor saxophone and flute playing remain at a high technical level, showing that he’s still equal to the physical demands of music-making. 

His tenth long player since his joining Blue Note in 2015, The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow offers a compelling masterclass in jazz composition and musicianship. Alternating between tenor saxophone and flute, Lloyd is assisted by a trio of contemporary jazz heavyweights; pianist Jason Moran, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Brian Blade, who offer simpatico support throughout.     

Three of the tracks pay tribute to past jazz greats. The jaunty, offbeat ‘Monk’s Dance’ with its angular melodic and harmonic quirks doffs its cap to the idiosyncratic jazz genius Thelonious Monk while the flute-led ‘Booker’s Garden’ is a pastoral soundscape paying homage to Lloyd’s childhood friend and fellow Memphian, trumpeter Booker Little, who passed in 1961 aged just 23. But the most affecting of Lloyd’s triptych to past jazz heroes is ‘Ghost Of Lady Day,’ a mournful elegy for Billie Holiday. Beginning with Grenadier’s plucked bass notes, Lloyd’s smoky saxophone rides a swelling, wave-like surge of sound that recalls Coltrane during his A Love Supreme period. 

Other high points include the gentle ‘Defiant, Tender Warrior,’ spotlighting Lloyd’s bittersweet lyricism, and ‘The Water Is Rising,’ a companion piece to his earlier composition, ‘The Water Is Wide.’ Lloyd also revisits the gospel tune, ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,’ which was the title cut of his 2002 album for ECM; in the new version, a duet between Lloyd and Moran, the church-influenced cadences are mostly implied rather than directly stated, allowing the saxophonist the freedom to soar above the chord changes with fluttering notes. 

Charles Lloyd, of course, unlike the sky, won’t always be there tomorrow – such is the human condition – but this new album is a birthday gift that will undoubtedly live on after him, forming part of a musical legacy whose value and significance will only increase with time.  (Out on March 15).

(CW)  4/5