Saxophonist Charles Lloyd has always operated at a tangent to the jazz mainstream. Coming to prominence in the 1960s with a progressive yet accessible mix of Coltrane-influenced post-bop and sunny soul-jazz, his quartet with drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Cecil McBee achieved unlikely fame with the hippie counterculture and scored a massive hit with their 1966 album Forest Flower. Lloyd largely dropped from sight in the 1970s and most of the 1980s, but he returned in 1989 with Fish Out of Water, revealing a mature sensitivity and an inclination towards ballads, and marking the beginning of his ongoing relationship with the iconic ECM label. With this latest release he seems to have come closer then ever to mainstream respectability, while retaining some of his maverick idiosyncrasies.
Mirror is Lloyd's first studio recording with his young quartet featuring pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers. As on their live debut - 2008's Rabo de Nube - Lloyd harnesses their youthful energies to create lush, tender ballads with a deep respect for jazz tradition. There are two affectionate versions of Thelonious Monk tunes, as well as a delicate rendition of the standard I Fall in Love Too Easily - on which Lloyd swaps his usual tenor for the alto saxophone, revealing a fragile vulnerability not always detectable in his playing. There's some accomplished support from the sidemen too. Rogers steals the show on The Water Is Wide with a succulent, bluesy vamp; and Harland pulls off a feat of lateral thinking on a version of the Beach Boys' Caroline, No, rattling out free-ish, skittering snare behind a loose ballad.
It's in the final quarter of the album that Lloyd's radical sensibilities shine through. Lift Every Voice and Sing transforms an old-time spiritual into intense free-jazz; Being and Becoming shimmers with a limpid spirituality; and the album finale, Tagi, has Lloyd delivering a hushed recitation on Eastern philosophy over a deep arco bass drone, with Harland's skipping drums revisiting the 2006 album, Sangam, he and Lloyd made with master tabla-player, Zakir Hussain.
It's been a long, strange trip for Charles Lloyd - but the journey's far from over.