This writer has begun every review, this now the third, of Charles Lloyd & The Marvels with the word “iconic” preceding Lloyd’s name. It’s a term the NEA Jazz Master more than lived up to, based on his January performances with another of his groups, Kindred Spirits, at UCLA this past January. Following the tradition and being a contemporary of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, Lloyd was steeped in spirituality from his beginnings but has become today, arguably the strongest spiritual force in the music. Readers of these pages may recall Lloyd’s 8: Kindred Spirits- Live from the Lobero which we reviewed and cited in the 2020 Glide Jazz 20 and/or his last release with this same backing unit, The Marvels, 2018’s Vanished Gardens, where they were joined by Lucinda Williams. Now Tone Poem is being released in conjunction with Lloyd’s 83rd birthday and marks his sixth release since returning to Blue Note.
Lloyd is again in the company of two extraordinary guitarists who often play together, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (pedal steel). Together with his Charles Lloyd Quartet cohorts, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, Lloyd presents The Marvels without guest vocalists for the first time on these nine songs featuring new Lloyd originals alongside pieces by Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Leonard Cohen, Gabor Szabo, and Bola de Nieve. (Note: the first Marvels album had vocals from Willie Nelson and Nora Jones). As stated in previous reviews, 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 notes from his pedal steel. In fact, what makes this unit so cohesive is that the rhythm section has years of playing together as do the two guitarists. Each can finish the other’s sentence and the collective conversational language is not only telepathic, but smooth and seamless.
Lloyd, so eminently spiritual and peaceful, is an increasingly rare bird in these tumultuous times, so much so that his words, coming from virtually anyone else would sound fluffy. Yet, he has a career that attests to his philosophy. The ensemble begins with two Ornette Coleman tunes, “Peace” and “Ramblin’,” neither of which were in his repertoire prior, but he felt were well suited to this band. You can hear Frisell and Leisz play off Lloyd’s glistening tenor tone, especially in the former, the latter delving more into the kind of free jazz associated with the composer.
There’s deep simplicity and judicious use of space in Cohen’s melodically flowing “Anthem” while Lloyd’s “The Dismal Swamp,” also a poem contained in the liners, played on alto flute with a piece of the melody reminiscent of a Donovan song (“Mellow Yellow”) and some of guitar parts rather bluesy. The title track brings his signature spirituality, but this group proves they can swing, albeit gently, on set staple “Monk’s Mood,” last heard in duo with Frisell on Vanished Gardens.
Lloyd speaks about the unusual instrumentation in the group, tracing its origin to his memory of a country band who often finished up at a club in Memphis before his group came on. He always admired the steel player who became a good friend that he never saw again after moving to California. Years later Lloyd started performing with Frisell and would often talk with him about this young man from his teens. Then, one night when they were playing the very same Royce Hall at UCLA referenced obliquely in the opening paragraph, Frisell invited Leisz to play. Thus, the Marvels were born.
There’s a live performance recorded in Spain of Bola de Nieve’s quiet, meandering “Ay Amor” with some of Leisz’s most impressive steel work, and a studio take on Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor,” played on alto flute, which offers a taste of Eastern motifs from earlier in his career and evokes his famous 1967 Montreux performance captured on Forest Flower. Notably, the guitarists raise the temperature considerably in the middle section. We’ve learned through his many recordings that he can be by turns spiritual, aggressive, or even bluesy as an R&B honker in the company of a fellow Memphis musician such as Booker T. He says, “…The world continues to make history about generals…but my generals – Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bird, and Trane –are lovers of the heart.” In future years, aspiring musicians may add his name to that lofty list. The gorgeous album culminates in his own “Prayer,” a solemn commemoration that beautifully weaves some of his freely blowing tenor moments with the guitars and bowed bass
This is as accessible as any jazz album can be, something you can say about most but not all Lloyd efforts. If you’re a Frisell and/or Leisz fan, you’ll love the way they support Lloyd. If you’re new to Lloyd, (yes, there may be a scant few of you out there) you have a deep catalog to explore. After all, his first group included Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette who were behind now classics Dream Weaver (1966), Forest Flower (1968) and the Trane-like In the Soviet Union (1970 to name just a few. Feel free to go back that far, but it may be easier to just start with his previous Blue Note release, 2015’s Wild Man Dance. Lloyd’s comment on that album applies here as well: “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.” Let’s hope we can enjoy Lloyd’s restless journey for many more years as he continues to make stimulating music and sound as vital as ever.
Blue Note Records has announced the upcoming 2021-2022 line-up for the acclaimed Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series, which will kick off March 12 with Charles Lloyd & The Marvels’ new album Tone Poem, the first-ever new release to be included in the series. Fittingly, it was Lloyd who first dubbed Joe Harley, the producer of the series, the “Tone Poet.” The Tone Poet series features all-analog, 180g audiophile vinyl reissues that are mastered from the original master tapes by Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio. Tone Poet vinyl is manufactured at RTI in Camarillo, California, and packaged in deluxe Stoughton Printing “Old Style” Gatefold Tip-On Jackets. Learn more here.