It was with the title, ‘The return of a legend on ECM’ that the venerable French jazz magazine Jazz Hot greeted the arrival of saxophonist Charles Lloyd onto the ECM label with the official campaign advertising in 1989 and it is difficult now to fully appreciate what an event this was since from the early 1970s onwards, and with the notable exception of a couple of albums on Blue Note and Elektra (‘A Night in Copenhagen’ being especially noteworthy for the pairing of Lloyd and then upcoming young turc, Michel Petrucciani), Lloyd had become something of a recluse and his early retirement from the jazz scene had been considered almost inevitable. This magnificent new box set celebrates the first period of what has proved to be an illustrious second half of career with five albums recorded between 1989 and 1996. Equally important, however, the collection enables the listener to be taken on a journey of rediscovery of Charles Lloyd’s craft over an intense eight year period when his standing internationally soared and he became rightly perceived as one of the remaining titans of the saxophone colossus and a direct guardian of the classic tradition of the 1960s.
Charles Lloyd debuted for ECM with a slight departure from the label’s normal minimalist literature to accompany the CD inner sleeve on the original; it had bi-lingual notes written by French novelist and jazz writer Alain Gerber with lengthy sleeve notes in English on the vinyl edition by noted jazz critic Mike Zwerin. Clearly Manfred Eicher held the musician in the highest esteem. A crack trio of ECM’s finest European musicians, who had previously accompanied Jan Garbarek, was assembled and these included Bobo Stenson on piano, Palle Danielsson on double bass and Jon Christensen on drums. For those not already familiar with the album, it is resplendent in its use of expressionist language and deeply imbued with Eastern hues that is entirely in keeping with Lloyd’s own philosophical interests. This is illustrated by the title track that opens the album and by the evocative flute playing on ‘Haghia Sophia’. Contrasting beautifully was a gentle nod to Coltranesque balladry on ‘The Dirge’ which was another set highlight. A fine way to enter the ECM stable, then, and over the next four albums it is remarkable who little the line-up varied with Billy Hart eventually taking over on percussive duties and Bobo Stenson remaining an ever present.
The follow up, ‘Notes from Big Sur’ (1991), saw Anders Jormin and Ralph Peterson take over bass and drums respectively and this was essentially a continuation of approach, though with Lloyd limiting himself to tenor saxophone on this occasion. The stark beauty of ‘Requiem’ and meanderings of ‘Sister’ are still impressive and indications of a spiritual journey on the part of the leader are evident on the Eastern-flavoured ‘Pilgrimage to the mountain’. That Lloyd was capable of displaying intense feeling is demonstrated with aplomb on ‘Part One – Persevere’ and the trio ably follow him in close pursuit here. By 1993 Charles Lloyd was now well established with the label and this particular release reveals both a plaintive and warm sound on tenor that is reminiscent of Coltrane’s ‘Crescent’. It was an especially memorable album as a result. On the lyrical ‘Dwija’, Lloyd’s gorgeous balladry craftsmanship was showcased and this was further facilitated by the delicate percussive accompaniment of new member Hart. Indian guru Saradanada provides the musical inspiration for the theme ‘The Blessing’ which is in fact a variation on ‘Ranmakrishna Pranam’ and this is nothing less than a wailing dervish of a tune.
Lloyd’s philosophical quest is paralleled on the subsequent album from 1994, ‘All my relations’ where he performs on flute and Chinese oboe as well as on tenor. It is above all else dominated by the stunning beautiful and haunting simplicity of the flute-led ‘Little Peace’ with fine accompanying by Stenson and the number builds in intensity with the trio alone before Lloyd re-enters proceedings. A heartfelt tribute to Monk ensures on ‘Thelonius Thelonyus’ with Caribbean-enthused drumming from Hart. On the solo meets drum escapade of ‘Where Lotus bloom’, Lloyd evokes Rollins in his prime mid-1950s period. The title track features an inventive percussive intro with the inside of the piano plucked and the gentle tenor of Lloyd conveying an Eastern flavour.
By the mid-1990s and the final offering here in ‘Canto’ (1996), Lloyd compositionally was now in deeply fertile territory with no less than three compositions exceeding thirteen minutes and these include the lengthy title track with the most sensitive performance from both the leader and pianist. Arguably it is the bleakest of Lloyd’s albums from this period and possibly his most contemplative also. The minimalist piano on ‘Desolation sound’ is indicative of in instense duet rapport between Lloyd and Stenson while the former’s ballad artistry is once more on display on ‘How can I tell you’. The release of the box set is tied in to celebrate seventy-five years of Charles Lloyd on this planet and is a wonderful tribute. Extended new inner sleeve notes provide useful historical context and the CDs are now contained in slimline white sleeves in keeping with the no frills ornamentation of the box set editions.