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Posts tagged ‘Charles Lloyd’

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

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Feat. Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell at home 2There was a time, seven or eight years ago, when I came to the conclusion that Bill Frisell was simply making too many records. I fell out of the habit of automatically buying his new releases because he seemed to be spreading himself too thin. Good Dog Happy Man (1999) and Blues Dream (2001) are still two of my all-time favourite albums, but I tend to prefer him nowadays as a contributor to other people’s records — something to which his particular expertise is well suited. Used sparingly, the characteristics of his playing add texture and flavour, just like King Curtis or Steve Cropper once did.

The job of being an accompanist is much underrated these days, so it’s good to welcome the arrival of two outstanding new albums on which Frisell fulfils that role: first with the saxophonist and flautist Charles Lloyd on I Long to See You and second with singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams on The Ghosts of Highway 20. They’re very different, of course, but they benefit equally from the guitarist’s modest, graceful touch.

When I interviewed him for the Guardian in 2002, Frisell explained a personal evolution that had begun with his first 45, the Beach Boys’s “Little Deuce Coupe”. Then came the Beatles and Manfred Mann — “that’s where I heard the blues for the first time” –followed by the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and the Paul Butterfield band. “I was coming to the blues backwards,” he said, “by figuring out where the English bands were getting a lot of their stuff from.” He may be in his sixties now, but he’s kept a sense of discovery in his music, whatever company he happens to be keeping.

I Long to See You finds Lloyd and Frisell tackling some familiar material, such as the saxophonist’s “Of Course Of Course” and “Sombrero Sam”, and a version of “Shenandoah” that doesn’t quite match the sublime reading Frisell and Ry Cooder contrived on Good Dog Happy Man. The biggest surprise is a resolute instrumental version of Dylan’s “Masters of War”, while the soulful Spanish traditional song “La Llorona”– previously recorded by Lloyd — invites Frisell to display his innate lyricism. Guest appearances by Willie Nelson on “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and Norah Jones on “You Are So Beautiful” are pleasant but not exactly essential.

The track that justifies the album’s existence, however, is its closer, the 16-minute “Barche Lamsel”. Named after a Buddhist prayer, it allows Lloyd (its composer), Frisell and their three bandmates — the steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the bass guitarist Reuben Rogers and the drummer Eric Harland — to improvise a dreamy five-minute intro on a single chord before drifting into a pulse defined by the drums  for a delicately funky jam that would once have been described as “spaced out”.

The concerns of The Ghosts of Highway 20 are more earthly in tone but no less spiritual in nature, if much less comforting. Lucinda Williams’ ravaged voice and bar-room country-blues songs do not trade in reassurance. Her America is a place of wayfaring strangers fleeing the past and seeking refuge from the future. As the poet of this world of lost highways and dangerous glances, Williams is rivalled only by James McMurtry.

Like its predecessor, 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (which also featured Leisz and Frisell), this one is a two-disc set. The extra length offered by the format would exhaust the capacity of most singer-songwriters, but it seems ideally suited Williams’ temperament. Although her songs are often skeletal, they need to stretch out and breathe inside arrangements that create their own sense of time. On “Louisiana Story” the two guitarists sit either side of the parched voice, carefully picking out a double commentary against a tempo that flows like a thin stream of black treacle.

* The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

Zen archer

Charles Lloyd 1There’s a poignant moment during Arrows into Infinity, a new biographical film about Charles Lloyd, when the saxophonist recalls a conversation by the bedside of his old friend and colleague Billy Higgins in 2001. The great drummer, who is close to death, declares that they’ve got to keep working on the music. “He’s like 90lb,” Lloyd says. “I said, ‘Are you going to get off this bed and come back and play with me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t say I’d be there, but I’ll always be with you.'”

Lloyd is a spiritual man, which accounts for his absence from music for several years in the 1970s. In conventional career terms, his withdrawal made no sense. His late-’60s quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, had sold plenty of records and made connections beyond the usual jazz audience; they had played the Fillmore and toured behind the Iron Curtain. He had appeared as a guest on recordings by the Beach Boys (Holland, 15 Big Ones, MIU) and the post-Morrison Doors (Full Circle). Nevertheless he chose to drop out, in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations. “They wanted me to become a product,” he says in the film. “And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.”

He moved from Malibu to Big Sur, married an artist named Dorothy Darr, and established a different sort of life, his performing for a while largely restricted to playing the oboe at readings by his neighbours Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Not until 1980 did the French pianist Michel Petrucciani pay him a visit and entice him back to the public stage. Since then he has re-established himself as an important figure, recording a series of albums for the ECM label, where he was teamed first in a quartet with the pianist Bobo Stenson and then with other partners including Higgins, the guitarist John Abercrombie, the pianist Geri Allen, the tabla master Zakir Hussain and the singer Maria Farantouri.

His current quartet features Jason Moran (piano), Ruben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums), young men who clearly relish their interaction with a veteran whose sound and ideas become more exquisitely distilled with each passing year. It’s a fine band, a perfect setting for his breadth of vision. Here they are at a French jazz festival in 2011, giving Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” a rather different treatment.

Born in Memphis in 1938, Lloyd listened to Lester Young and Charlie Parker as a teenager and played R&B with Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker before leaving for Los Angeles. I first heard him as a key member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet of 1962-63, one of my favourite groups of the time. Lloyd wrote virtually all of the group’s material, which — like his own tenor-playing — took its inspiration from John Coltrane’s innovations and marked a fruitful change of direction for Hamilton, away from chamber jazz and towards something more robust. The distinctive flavour of the quintet’s sound came from the guitar of Gabor Szabo, who loved drones and could summon the effect of a sitar, a koto, an oud or a saz, blending particularly well with Lloyd’s flute. They made three albums as a quintet — Drumfusion for Columbia, Passin’ Thru for Impulse and A Different Journey for Reprise — and one as a quartet, Impulse’s Man from Two Worlds, which also included the first version of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower”, which became a hit for his own quartet a few years later.

The recordings with Hamilton are all available on CD, and Passin’ Thru remains one of my favourite albums of the era, not least thanks to the powerful grooves sustained by the phenomenal young bassist Albert Stinson. Here’s a track called “El Toro”, which shows why Stinson was good enough to sub for Ron Carter with Miles Davis and would surely have become a major figure on his instrument had he not died from a heroin overdose while touring with Larry Coryell in 1969, aged 24.

Drugs were another reason why Lloyd dropped out. “I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,” he says. “At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.” His studies in philosophy and religion got him through it, with the help of Dorothy Darr, who has produced and directed Arrows into Infinity with Jeffery Morse, gathering historic TV and concert footage from the ’60s (London, Newport, Antibes, Tallinn etc), film of recent performances with the current quartet, and of duets with Billy Higgins, giving us a chance to enjoy again the drummer’s matchless sense of swing and unforgettable smile. There are interviews with Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Robbie Robertson, Jim Keltner, Don Was, Zakir Hussain, Geri Allen and many others — including, amazingly, Lewis Steinberg, the original bass player with Booker T and the MGs, who knew the young Lloyd in Memphis. There’s also a delightful sequence of Lloyd playing pool with Ornette Coleman; the two were friends in LA in the ’50s.

Lloyd himself, however, is the most interesting witness to the journey that took him from Howlin’ Wolf to Zakir Hussain. The film tells a fascinating story of survival and self-realisation in which his gentle wisdom is as impressive as his music.

* The photograph of Charles Lloyd is from the booklet accompanying Arrows into Infinity, which is released by ECM.