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Our critics' picks in new releases


If Charles Lloyd's melancholy tenor saxophone were a beam of light, it would decorate the horizon with nature's medium tones--shady greens, dusty browns, diluted grays, the muted colors of dawn and dusk.

Bolstered by an all-star quintet co-starring veteran drummer Billy Higgins and piano wunderkind Brad Mehldau, Lloyd has somehow pinpointed that sacred ground where the earthy and esoteric commingle in his latest heartfelt recital, The Water is Wide. Though the album speaks in the sometimes coded language of improvisation, it's one of those rarefied records that will be embraced by everyone, even folks who would never consider plugging jazz into the home beat-box.

Mehldau is Lloyd's secret weapon. If you know Mehldau's exotic but indulgent discs on the Warner Bros. label, you may not recognize the guy who plies the 88s on The Water is Wide. Invigorated by Lloyd's airy sax and Higgins' deftly brushed cymbals, Mehldau supports his mates with piano that whispers quiet exuberance and welcome conventionality. Every note counts for something, and Mehldau puts every one of 'em in just the right place.

The piano solo on Hoagy Carmichael's warhorse, "Georgia," is masterful in its economy and invention. In 24 bars, Mehldau recalls the blues-informed cadence of Ray Charles, who defined the tune, and hoists a glass to Red Garland, the underrated pianist in Miles Davis' unforgettable bands of the '50s. Mehldau's joyous block-chords are lifted straight out of Red's pocketful of ear candy. The table is then set for Lloyd's final chorus. A sonic feast is served.

The rest of the disc seldom strays from ballad territory, revisiting a radiant pair of Duke Ellington chestnuts, a flower by Billy Strayhorn ("Lotus Blossom") and Lloyd's own tribute to fallen angel Billie Holiday ("Lady Day"). Way up in heaven's VIP section, the Maestro and two Billies are gathered in a circle, admiring the love oozing out of Lloyd's horn.

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