Lloyd McNeill ‘Elegia’ LP/CD (Soul Jazz) 4/5

For the first time since its initial release on the Baobab label in 1980, Lloyd McNeill’s rare private press album ‘Elegia’ (aka Elegia: for Elizabeth), sees a welcome return courtesy of the Soul Jazz/Sounds Of The Universe record label, who continue to explore the inspiring works of this great multidisciplinary artist. Between 1971-76 McNeill made frequent visits to Brazil studying music and culture for academic and personal interest. Following on from his 1978 album ‘Tori’, ‘Elegia’ incorporates the Brazilian sensibilities with Lloyd McNeill’s deep spiritual overtones, mixing jazz with African and Brazilian rhythms.

In the mid-1960s Lloyd McNeill took up a residency in Paris at The National School Of Fine Arts studying lithography and whilst there he became close friends with Pablo Picasso and his second wife Jacqueline Roque. He also studied music composition privately with the composer Hale Smith, music theory and flute technique with the jazz musician Eric Dolphy, and classical flute technique and repertoire with the late Harold Jones, who was president of the New York Flute Club from 1976-1979 and who formed the Antara Ensemble to bring classical music to the Harlem community in the early 1990s.

The album features a stellar line up of Brazilian pianist Dom Salvador, bassist Cecil McBee, percussionists Naná Vasconcelos and Portinho, guitarist Claudio Celso, vocalist Susan Osborn and Lloyd McNeill playing both flute and alto flute. Many of the musicians have been classically trained and it’s that classical approach which adds a welcome new dimension to the mix. The album pays tribute to the African-American cultures in the diaspora; their roots, culture and history.

‘Samba For The Animals’ starts off with the subdued piano flute combination and faint percussion before breaking into a samba which brings the tempo up before a slight pause allows Cecil McBee’s reflective solo to break the rhythm before the floating flute weaves across the buoyant samba rhythm with guest percussionist Portinho and Naná Vasconcelos adding exuberant textures with voice and percussion. The interchanges between Lloyd McNeill and Dom Salvador add warmth and a memorable sound reminiscent in places of the soulful side of Dom Um Romão’s music.

On ‘Behind The Wind’ and part of ‘Striped Pants’ Lloyd McNeill plays solo flute with the former short piece opening up like an enchanted story portraying life in its simplicity.

The contemplative ‘Asha part 2’ highlights the jazz side of pianist Dom Salvador. His subtle harmonies complement Lloyd McNeill’s reflective exchanges with Cecil McBee’s deep bass tones. The composition is over 11 minutes with some excellent playing by the three main contributors and the background percussion which adds another welcome dimension without overpowering the harmony.

The adventurous ‘Elegia Suite For Elizabeth’ is the album’s centrepiece, which is split into three parts: ‘Time’, The Mighty River’ and ‘The Word’, overseen by conductor Andrew White and featuring the powerful expressive voice of Susan Osborn. Her unique style shouldn’t really nestle in between the rest of the music on the album, but somehow it fits perfectly, adding an extra dimension that takes off towards the realms of non-jazz but the counterbalance of Naná Vasconcelos and company adding a colourful tapestry of background sounds, envelops her unique expressionism. Reminiscent of Norma Winstone ‘Edge Of Time’ with a slight Steve Reich feel. It’s a momentous work which is emotive and confident with a boldness which states its place.

Voted percussionist of the year in Downbeat jazz from 1964-1990, The mastery of Naná Vasconcelos can be heard on countless jazz and Brazilian albums with groups including Codona alongside Don Cherry and Collin Walcott and his collaborations with pianist-composer Egberto Gismonti. On this album he brings his vast array of Brazillian instruments, creating a rich palette of percussion and sound effects from his unique folk style which stems from Recife in Brazil.

Brazilian percussionist, Portinho, has worked with many esteemed artists including Airto Moreira, Gato Barbieri and Tania Maria. He has featured on many jazz albums including Michel Legrand’s ‘Southern Routes’ on tracks including ‘La Pasionaria’, sampled by U.F.O for ‘Loud Minority’ and Tania Maria’s classic album ‘Come With Me’. On this album, he guests on ‘Samba For The Animals’ adding lively energy which is fitting for the composition.

Dom Salvador featured on three Dom Um Romão albums and he brings that same soulful sound to this latest project by McNeill. He worked with Lloyd on two other albums, ‘Treasures’ and ‘Tori’ and seems like the perfect pianist to articulate the feeling and approach for this album.

Cecil McBee is a bassist who has graced many great jazz albums and his own albums as a leader are important albums that include contributions for labels including Enja, India Navigation and Strata East. He received a Grammy for the excellent 1987 recorded ‘Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane’ album featuring Pharoah Sanders, David Murray, McCoy Tyner, Cecil McBee and Roy Haynes.

Claudio Celso is a classically trained guitarist who was listed in the world’s top 100 guitarists by Guitar Player magazine. His collaborations include Eumir Deodato, Zimba Trio and many jazz artists including collaborations with Creed Taylor.

Ron Di Scenza is a figurative impressionist painter who resided in New York City during the 1970s. His brilliant interpretation of the film ‘The Tree Of The Wooden Clogs’ became a wildly popular poster shown all over NYC, seen by everyone. His front cover painting of McNeill and the scene around him perfectly captures the essence of the music conveyed within ‘Elegia’.

An exceptional mix of Brazilian, African with Jazz sounds, woven into a story from a classical perspective which perfectly evokes the intended picture of a time in history. It’s a great reissue from the Soul Jazz label and one that documents the journey of this multifaceted artist and teacher.

Mark Jones