SAN FRANCISCO -- Since the SFJazz Center opened its doors 16-plus months ago, no one has had more fun there, and defied more expectations, than pianist Jason Moran. He has collaborated with comedians (Faizon Love and Marina Franklin), jazz elders (pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Billy Harper) and a chamber ensemble (Imani Winds). His bristly trio, known as the Bandwagon, has performed alongside a squadron of skateboarders, and is doing that once again this weekend.
Friday, Moran gave a duet performance with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, one of his mentors. Their recital was luxurious with ballads, beginning with Billy Strayhorn's "The Star-Crossed Lovers," which Lloyd introduced with a sensual flourish that felt like feathers brushing across skin.
A resident artistic director with the SFJazz organization, Moran has been a member of Lloyd's quartet since 2007. Two years ago, they recorded "Hagar's Song" (ECM), an album of duets, often transfixing. Friday's 90-minute performance was even more focused than the recording. Moran, who is 39, and Lloyd, who is 76, played as if moving through a shadow-land of memory and heart, sometimes at the edge of silence. You could hear the clacking of the keys on Lloyd's tenor saxophone.
He has a lean and mellow sound -- it's become an essence, almost a fragrance -- that comes out of the John Coltrane school, but with his own brand of swoops and squiggles and leaps. Friday, he rarely strayed far from a melody. On Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," for instance, he hewed to the familiar song throughout his solo, surrounding each phrase with exotic, fluttering elaborations. Often, he climbed up through the horn's registers with a whoosh, then added a quick downward fillip to land on his target note.
There's a lot of open space in his playing, as in Moran's. The pianist took "Bess" at a slow, slow tempo, tweaking the harmonies toward church cadences -- something like Keith Jarrett, an influence (and, back in the '60s, a member of Lloyd's quartet), but with more gravity and blues.
The effect recalled that of a Coltrane tone poem or spiritual, though, again, Moran's language, like Lloyd's, is unique and has a way of leading a song to fresh territory. He incorporates stride piano and Duke Ellington's clear, elegant approach to accompaniment. He is likely to fling a ripple up the length of the keyboard, like Fats Waller or Art Tatum; to punctuate with a left-handed spike, like Thelonious Monk; or to unleash a brief, rumbling crowd of notes, calling to mind Andrew Hill, one of his teachers.
"Go ahead!" Lloyd often shouted at him, because Moran, a study in motion, especially when he quietly "goes to church," also builds groove. While Moran did this toward the end of the concert, lanky Lloyd moved to the side of the stage and danced in the shadows: with his beret and sunglasses, blazer and drainpipe slacks, he is one of the original hipsters.
Moran's church cadences turned, surprisingly, into "Caroline No," by Lloyd's old friend Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys. (It first appeared on their "Pet Sounds.") Lloyd and Moran boiled the ballad down to its sad, exquisite essence. They did the same to Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and to the old standard "You've Changed," by Bill Carey and Carl Fischer, which Billie Holiday once sang, and which Lloyd now was "singing," too." You could have heard a pin drop.
As an encore, the duo played Wilson's "God Only Knows." It was operatic, trembling with melody, then fading to silence.
With skateboarders on a half-pipe in front of stage
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $25-$35; 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org