Charles Lloyd and The Marvels ‘I Long to See You’ (Blue Note) 4/5

charles-lloyd-marvelsLast year saw the release of Charles Lloyd’s incredible “Wild Man Dance”, a remarkable live recording that personifies everything that the saxophonist/composer has stood for throughout his long, illustrious career. The music therein took the listener on an adventurous and spiritually rewarding journey, its depth and beauty knowing no bounds. Lloyd’s creativity thankfully shows no sign of letting up, with this, his second Blue Note release in the last twelve months. This album however, is very different to his previous outing, one that sees the evergreen saxophonist enlisting a stellar band to help him produce an album that focusses largely on shorter, sweeter tunes that bridge the gap between jazz, country, folk and blues, effortlessly blending their histories into gentle, yet rewarding musical moments in time. The cross genre musical influences are insignificant in Lloyd’s hands, the music walks its own path, as is always the case with the iconic saxophonist. The seed for this latest project was planted in 2013 when Lloyd invited guitarist Bill Frisell to perform with him at UCLA’s Royce Hall. They had met earlier that year when they shared a stage, and Lloyd says, “We made a connection. I knew that we were moving towards this sound. Bill is sensitive and very intuitive. We don’t need to say much when we get together – it’s all expressed in the music, in the sound, the feeling.” Joining them for this recording are Pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, a regular collaborator of Frisell’s, the awesome rhythm section of Eric Harland on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, and special guest contributors Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and Joe Harley.

“I long to see you” features a collection of ten songs, old and new. From traditional hymns to anti-war folk protests to reinterpreted originals that look for new light on Lloyd’s ever searching musical path. The album opens with one of its stronger tunes, a brooding interpretation of Bob Dylan’s classic “Masters of War”. What becomes apparent very quickly is the excellent interplay between Frisell’s country/jazz tinged guitar, and the subtle atmospheric playing of Leisz on pedal steel guitar. Throughout the album as a whole, Lloyd allows the two guitarists time and space to create their sound, with the pair performing beautifully whether up front or creating a backdrop for Lloyd’s effortlessly tuneful sax playing. But here, paradoxically, we have perhaps the album’s strength and weakness all rolled into one. There are times when Lloyd takes a back seat, as is the case on the magnificent “La Llorona”, where the ambience and mood created by the guitarists working in unison is sheer genius. The resulting piece of music makes for an incredibly warm and affecting atmosphere, undoubtedly one of the stand-out tracks of the album. Yet at other times they do seem to get a little lost in the ‘country twang’ of things, the vibe losing its oeuvre somewhat. I am a great admirer of Frisell, but sometimes I can’t help wishing to hear more of the surprise and spark we once heard in the days of the Paul Motian and Joe Lovano trio recordings. But there are plenty of highlights to enjoy, and not just from the guitarists and band leader himself. On “You are so beautiful” we get to hear a gorgeous vocal from Norah Jones. The track itself is a delightful triumph, with Lloyd at his breathtaking best. Simplicity is sometimes all that is required, and the touch and feel provided by the saxophonist is exquisite. As, indeed, is the vocal delivery from Jones. There is a brief moment where her voice rises slightly that sends a shiver down the spine with its simple, affecting, emotional beauty. A stunning take on an old classic song. Whilst most of the tracks hover around the five minute mark, it is perhaps the shortest and the longest tunes that leave the most lasting impression. The shortest is the hymn “Abide with me” with Lloyd’s melancholic tenor providing the lead as Frisell’s guitar shadows his notes. The longest, by some margin, is the only new piece of music on the album. Clocking in at sixteen minutes, “Barche Lamsel” is by far and away the most exploratory piece on the album. It starts slowly, but after a few minutes it cooks, with the brilliance of drummer Harland and bassist Rogers providing a groove that is just ‘there’. Barche Lamsel is a Buddhist prayer to remove all obstacles, and as Lloyd explains; “As we started to record the track, it became Barche Lamsel. There seemed to be no impediments to the flow of notes and ideas. It is a prayer for peace, a sutra for tenderness.” And the tune truly sparkles, giving the listener a true feel for just what the musicians involved are capable of. As good as the rest of “I long to see you” is, this track leaves me wondering what might have been if the band had focussed more on developing new material together, exploring fresh ideas and playing together in a more open way than the other tracks allow. But then perhaps that’s one for the future, let’s hope there’s more to come from Charles Lloyd and The Marvels, in a setting that allows the music to breathe and develop, always a strong point in the saxophonist’s remarkably unique, musical vision.

Mike Gates

Veteran tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd returns for his second album on Blue Note and was a key signing for producer Don Was, but this is the first in the studio and the change in direction is indicated by the absence of any piano and the inclusion in its place of the guitar of Bill Frisell, a long-time admirer of Lloyd’s work from way back in the 1960s when the guitarist listened as a youth to Lloyd’s Atlantic albums.

Here, Frisell adds his own personalised take on the American folk tradition within a jazz framework and the pairing of these two jazz musician is little short of revelatory. It was Lloyd’s original intention to record this band in a live context. However, that opinion changed on the advice of co-producer and wife of the saxophonist, Dorothy Darr. The overall impression is one of a relaxed and invigorating environment and the guitarist and saxophonist revel in each other’s company. That relaxed feel is evident on ‘Shenandoah’ which is a major highlight and, perhaps, surprisingly on a laid back reading of the 1960s hit, ‘Sombrero Sam’, that found an audience for Lloyd way beyond the jazz establishment at the time. Here the inventive use of space with evocative flute playing from the leader and subtle drums from Eric Harland is a joy and with the extended and melodic guitar intro by Frisell, one hears the number in an altogether different light. Another famous piece is the title track to a mid-1960s Columbia album, ‘Of Course, Of Course’, and the listener can appreciate the simplicity and joyous nature of the new version with a quasi-jam session approach. Lloyd has always excelled on balladry work and that most gentle of piece, ‘La Llorona 6’, was previously recorded in 2009 for ECM. There is lovely delicate guitar work from Frisell while Lloyd caresses the tune on tenor. Charles Lloyd has never shied away from socio-political concerns without ever attempting to be preachy.

A reprise of Dylan’s ‘Master of war’ has received extensive radio coverage and the supportive folk-blues guitar of Frisell invokes the late great Ali Farka Touré. Another politically-themed number, ‘All my trials’, was originally a Bahamian lullaby, but is linked to the 1960s protest movement. Lloyd adopts a mournful tone on tenor with sensitive accompaniment from Frisell. Guest vocalists are few and far between on Charles Lloyd recordings so the rationale had better be clear and Willie Nelson proves to be an ideal partner for the anti-war song, ‘I had the strangest dream’. It is typically relaxed interpretation by the singer who, it should be remembered, recorded an album of jazz standards, ‘Stardust’, in 1978 and possesses a naturally jazz-inflected voice. Moreover, he recorded an excellent live recording with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center which deserved to be a major success. A Billy Preston composition, ‘You are so beautiful’, was a hit single for Joe Cocker back in 1974 and Norah Jones makes a decent stab at it. It should be stated that neither of the pairing of vocal numbers hinders one’s appreciation of the instrumental remainder and, provided that Lloyd is not pigeonholed into regularly featuring singers, the results enhance rather than detract from the music as a whole. One Lloyd original is an epic sixteen minute piece, ‘Barche Lamsel’ that ends the album on a spiritual high. This beautifully crafted album is only marginally short of a five class rating. Charles Lloyd’s playing is of the highest order and, in this writer’s opinion, he fits comfortably into the top three of greatest living saxophone/reed players.

Tim Stenhouse