updated 4/4/2005 4:32:30 PM ET 2005-04-04T20:32:30

For much of the past five years, Charles Lloyd’s music has had much to do with his longtime friend and legendary drummer, Billy Higgins. Lloyd’s last album, Which Way Is East, best illustrated the strong brotherly bond between the two jazz luminaries as they engaged in imaginative duet conversations, featuring both playing instruments outside of their normal repertoire. Lloyd complemented his yearning, feathery tenor saxophone with the Tibetan oboe, taragato, various exotic flutes, piano and singing, while Higgins stretched his usual palette to include miscellaneous hand drums, guitar, the giumbri and the Syrian one-string lute.

Which Way is East resulted in a masterful exercise in modern jazz esoterica – music that’s inventive, highly emotional, yet somewhat hermetic, not allowing for easy access for those not familiar with the shared history between Lloyd and Higgins. More accessible, in varying degrees, were the series of three Lloyd albums, featuring Higgins in more conventional mode, starting off with 1999’s Voice in the Night, peaking at The Water Is Wide and concluding with the magical Hyperion with Higgins, which showcased a splendid multi-generational ensemble, consisting of guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier.

All recorded in 1999 but released over the course of four years, that trilogy saw the group tackle an expansive repertoire, ranging from jazz standards and Negro spirituals to explorative originals and earthy blues.  During that span, only the poignant, double-disc, Lift Every Voice boasted Higgins’ immediate predecessor, Billy Hart.

If Which Way is East marked the wistful end of a beautiful musical partnership, then the spry Jumping the Creek announces the arrival of a new vibrant band.  Whereas on the former, with all its esoteric underpinnings, Lloyd seemed as if he was biding farewell to friend, here, he sounds more optimistic, ready to establish some new bonds.

There’s always been a questing, spiritual quality to Lloyd’s saxophone playing and compositions, regardless of personal circumstances.  And that quality is certainly apparent on Jacques Brel’s spectral, “Ne Me Quitee Pas (If You Go Away),” which opens the disc.  Pianist Geri Allen sets the mood by gently stating the melody with sparse, cascading notes on top of Robert Hurst’s meditative bass drones and Eric Harland’s martial snare drum rolls. Then Lloyd ushers the melody with a lonesome ethos that suggests that his mourning of Higgins’ passing hasn’t completely ended.  And on the gorgeous “Angel Oak Revisited,” Lloyd conjures a similar vibe as he powers his legato statements over Allen’s rumbling piano and Harland’s shimmering cymbal crashes and roiling tom-tom fills.  Switching to the haunting taragato with all its transportive sororities, Lloyd casts a mystical spell on the mesmerizing “The Sufi’s Tears” as he unleashes mournful, serpentine lines across Hurst’s arco bass lines and pizzicato accents.

But elsewhere, Lloyd engages his quartet in flinty, interactive dialogues that are decidedly lithe and capricious. On the sparkling, “Canon Perdido,” Harland lays down a quicksilver groove, distinguished by rapid-fire rim-shots and sizzling hi-hat shuffles while Hurst pushes the momentum along with his rugged, funky bass lines. Lloyd’s tenor slithers shyly at first, but as his solo gains more velocity, his improvisations dances joyously as he punctuates it with swirling figures and jabbing, declarative notes.

The magnificent “Georgia Bright Suite” best captures Lloyd’s sense of renewal, as he opens the piece with a soft-hued soliloquy set against Allen’s starry-eyed piano accompaniment. Once the rhythm-section kicks in with a pneumatic mid-tempo groove, Lloyd and Allen’s playing pick up steam, with Lloyd uncoiling twisting improvisations that writhe around Allen’s spiky countermelodies.

In addition to the vivacious interplay within the quartet, splendid solos and intriguing compositions, Lloyd excites when he engages each member, sometimes in duet or trio performances.  “Ken Katta Ma Om” is a dazzling trio excursion, featuring Lloyd blowing radiant, corkscrew improvisations against Harland’s prancing, ride-cymbals and skittering snare drum pattern before giving way to Allen’s roving piano essay while the intoxicating “Both Veils Must Go” showcases his luminous tenor in tandem with Harland’s funky, five-beat riffs.

Jumping the Creek offers a wellspring of unfettered pleasure, regardless of temperament.  Even the more reflective moments like his enchanting makeover of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” Lloyd emits a gleaming sanguinity, especially when engaged with this bright, pliant, highly alert quartet that allows him to stretch to the outer-reaches while simultaneously grounding him in accessibility.

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