Venerable saxophonist finds common ground with rootsy singer-songwriter on a free-ranging new album.
There can’t be many musicians on planet earth today who can claim to have been mentored by John Coltrane, but Charles Lloyd is one. At the time of what has so far been his only visit to New Zealand, the saxophone player told me that Trane had been ‘like a big brother’, and had assured him people would always like his music because of its warmth. And that warmth is evident as always on Lloyd’s latest album.
Lloyd turned 80 a few months ago – twice the age Coltrane was when he died - but his playing is as full and fluid and, yes, warm as ever, on the opening track from Vanished Gardens, his latest recording with his occasional group The Marvels, which includes guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.
The opening tune - which he calls ‘Defiant’ - is one of Lloyd’s own, and once it gets going he takes it for the kind of full post-bop expedition he’s been specialising in now for something like 60 years. And yet the melody recalls an old folk song or spiritual, a link to Lloyd’s roots which are never far away.
Lloyd grew up in Memphis and as a teenager played with R&B stars like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, before heading to the West Coast, following his jazz heart. By the mid-60s he was a fixture on the San Francisco scene, performing his post-bop jazz alongside psychedelic rock bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. His live album Forest Flower was one of the first jazz records ever to sell a million copies. Another, with its typical-of-the-times title Love-In, was recorded at that famous hippie hang, the Fillmore Auditorium. Over the following decades he would come and go from the jazz scene, playing for a while as part of The Beach Boys’ touring band, or woodshedding in seclusion on California’s central coast. Since his full-blown return in the 90s he’s been more prolific than ever. And while there’s never been any doubt that he’s essentially a post-bop jazz improviser in the Coltrane tradition, neither has he stopped making links with other musical forms.
For half the tracks on this album he is joined by singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. ‘Dust’, which originally appeared on her 2016 album Ghosts of Highway 20, is revisited here with Lloyd weaving his saxophone around her world-weary vocal. On ‘Unsuffer Me’ another song from Williams’ recent-ish back catalogue, Lloyd’s quintet dance around what was, in Williams’ original version, a steady plodding rock song. Slide guitarist Greg Leisz jumps in first, followed after a little while by Lloyd, whose horn starts off imitating the moans and slurs of Williams’ vocal, before taking off on a plea all of its own.
The album comes courtesy of the vintage jazz imprint Blue Note, which in recent years has fallen under the stewardship of producer Don Was, and you could hear its meeting of post-bop and country-rock as a canny piece of cross-marketing.
Not that it’s an unnatural fit. Lloyd as we know has often drawn from folk forms, while Williams, though her roots are in blues and country, has increasingly looked towards the expansiveness of jazz. Guitarists Leisz and Frisell have both played on her recent albums, where she has set her pithy song-poems in looser, almost-impressionistic arrangements, not too different from what she does here.
Though most of the tunes are written by either Williams or Lloyd, the closing tracks pay homage to a couple of giants, each boundary-busting in their own way. First Lloyd takes a lovely lyrical stroll through Thelonious Monk’s ‘Monk’s Mood’, with just Bill Frisell’s guitar for company – and that’s really all you need.
Then for the finale, Frisell and Lloyd are joined again by Williams, for a version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Angel’ that strips the song back to folk roots, keeping the melody, leaving out any superfluous changes.
I heard another record described recently as ‘jazz for people who don’t like jazz’, and one might glibly place Vanished Gardens in that category, only I’m not sure that’s really true. It would be just as valid to call it ‘country music for people who prefer free-form improvisation’, or even ‘Hendrix, for people who don’t realise what beautiful songs he wrote’.
Whatever you call it, it’s certainly not a record for people who like their music statements short and concise. It’s expansive. It wanders, perhaps even a little off course at times. But the players here are well beyond categorising or apologising for what they do. They have earned the freedom to explore. And in their idiosyncratic ways, all they’re really doing is playing the songs.