At its most pure and best, jazz is a live art where musicians disassemble, explore, then reconstruct melodies and rhythms right before your ears.

The most pure and best jazz was epitomised on Sunday by the legendary 72-year old saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his band of pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, players half his age but unquestionably among the finest of their generation.

There was something indefinable in Lloyd's warm yet sometimes emotionally distant tone that, in the lengthy opener, reached back beyond the obvious reference of John Coltrane to a sound which seemed ancient: the audible breath through the instrument and the sense of yearning and space ...

Within minutes Lloyd had captivated the respectful but enthusiastic audience - and the other players had yet to have their chance.

Lloyd, who gave his band generous solo and ensemble time, is a first among equals in this group: pianist Moran could shift from curiously even-accented chords through Monk-like angularity and into almost free playing within a dozen or so bars; bassist Rogers was the solid presence whose solos were muscular but just as often romantically melodic; and drummer Harlan (most valued player award by applause alone) could play with the staccato accuracy of a machinegun and to just as much effect.

Harland's lengthy solo spot - his right foot keeping a low pulse, kit-work shifting from tickling of the cymbal to sudden rim shots - was one of many highlights in a seamless concert which alluded to a great tradition (Monk and Miles, hints of Rollins' carnival sound, Lloyd on flute conjuring up pastoral Krishna then beatnik Cool) but also delivered enjoyable acoustic funk and aching romantic balladry.

We've had excellent international jazz recently - Ornette Coleman in Wellington, solo Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Corea again with John McLaughlin - but it's hard to imagine Lloyd's exceptional concert will be equalled in the rest of this decade.

Jazz at its most pure and best, played by masters.