Charles Lloyd & The Marvels Collaborate with Lucinda Williams on “Vanished Gardens” (Album Review)

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Iconic living legend saxophonist Charles Lloyd keeps exploring as he now moves into his ninth decade. This release, Vanished Gardens, his fourth upon his return to Blue Note, again pairs him with two extraordinary guitarists who often play together, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (pedal steel and dobro). The two have played on Lucinda’s most recent Ghosts of Highway 20 and certainly encouraged her to join them for these sessions. Together with his Charles Lloyd Quartet cohorts, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, The Marvels with Williams render three new Lloyd originals, play four of Lucinda’s songs where she is featured, interpret two instrumental covers and conclude with Lucinda singing on Hendrix’s “Angel.” The blend of instruments is especially compelling, and the unit, especially Lloyd, plays more aggressively now with Lucinda. In almost any instance, whether it be a Lloyd original, a Lucinda tune, or covers; music slides into the edgier, spiritual signature Lloyd vein.

This has several components. Lucinda’s fans will find the new arrangements rather interesting. If you’re a Frisell and/or Leisz fan, you’ll love the way they support Lloyd. They bring an array of textures, loops and ethereal sounds. Many Lucinda listeners may be new to Lloyd. If so, you have a deep 60 year catalog to explore. After all, his first group included Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. Feel free to go back that far, but it’s probably easier to just start with his previous Blue Note release, 2017’s Passin’ Thru or this one’s predecessor with The Marvels, I Long to See You. Like that one, although this may be positioned primarily as jazz, there’s plenty of American, blues, and rock to be found, especially given Lucinda’s integral presence.

The group has been touring with Lucinda on select festival dates, most recently the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  Lloyd says, “I’ve worked with a lot of poets,” Lloyd says, “especially during my Big Sur days; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Diane diPrima, Schyleen Qualls, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman, James Dalessandro… putting words and music together. Lu is a poet. An authentic, American voice. Her sound is like an emotional barometer. A weather vane. Sometimes it swirls around in the tempest of a storm and sometimes it is sweet and pure as a Southern breeze carrying the intoxicating perfume of magnolia to you. As a poet, her imagery knocks me out.  She is a reporter of the human condition, of life on planet Earth.”

This band’s music would be challenging for most as it is stylishly slow paced. Lloyd is Coltrane-like in many of his tenor solos, albeit with a softer approach. His tone, accented by the gleaming guitars, is remarkably clear and pure throughout. Frisell uses his famous loops more sparingly here and Leisz assumes a bit more of the spotlight, coaxing some rather unpredictable lower register note from his pedal steel.

The album begins in spiritual ballad tempo with Lloyd on tenor for his new composition, “Defiant,” joined in the mid-section by Frisell and Leisz weaving their lines collaboratively. Lucinda then renders her “Dust,” singing emphatically amidst the beautiful backdrop. Frisell introduces the title track, a new Lloyd tune, with his syncopated lines and loops, as Lloyd ever so gently enters on tenor before assuming the lead, often playing point-counterpoint to Leisz as the band really stretches into avant-garde mode.  When Lucinda sings, “I want to get swallowed up in an ocean of love” in her “Ventura,” it becomes the perfect line for the gorgeous, enveloping tones of Lloyd and the guitarists.

”Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” popularized by Roberta Flack, at first becomes a vehicle for Frisell before Lloyd’s ballad-like tenor brings the melody. Lloyd solos in the lead-in and mid-section of Lucinda’s new gospel tune, “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” accenting her emotive vocals with inspired playing. Lloyd takes up his signature alto flute for his own “Blues for Langston and LaRue” and tenor for “Monk’s Mood.”  On both the latter and “Angel” Lloyd and Frisell are the only instrumentalists. Lucinda brings flat out sensuality to an expansive version of her funky bluesy “Unsuffer Me,” in which the principal soloist is Leisz on pedal steel, yielding to Lloyd’s punctuated tenor in the middle section before reaching a glorious crescendo to close it out.  Hendrix’s cover and closer, “Angel” features Frisell prominently as you would expect, with Lloyd blowing sustained notes gorgeously to introduce and complement Lucinda’s vocals.

Lloyd admits that as he’s gotten to better know Lucinda, “we can travel more freely down certain paths.”  He once said this too, “I am still searching to find the sound. It is my path. I call myself a ‘sound seeker.’ The deeper I dive into the ocean of sound, I find there is still deeper and further to go.”  We are so blessed to have Lloyd who shows no signs of slowing down – an album in each of the last four years and a year-long touring schedule with The Marvels featuring Lucinda Williams.  Get to a performance if you can. It’s an experience you’ll long treasure.

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