Charles Lloyd Delivers First of Three Trio Albums With Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan On ‘Trios: Chapel’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Charles Lloyd at age 84 remains as spiritually relevant, contemporarily focused, and prolific as ever. Lloyd has played in many configurations including the standard drum-piano-bass-sax quartet but also in quintets that include both piano and guitar as well as his famous quintet, The Marvels, that features two guitarists, one of whom, the renowned guitarist Bill Frisell, along with Frisell’s go-to bassist Thomas Morgan, form the first of three trios in a series of recordings featuring three different trios that Lloyd is releasing in 2022. Lloyd has constantly searched for new contexts in which to deliver his improvised solos and has worked rather regularly with most of the musicians that comprise his vision of the three trios, which interestingly have a guitarist as the only instrumental constant. The second will feature guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Gerald Clayton while the third will install guitarist Julian Lage and percussionist Zakir Hussain. 

So, the recording at hand, Trios: Chapel, takes its name from an inaugural performance at Coates Chapel in San Antonio in December of 2018, where this session was recorded live. Apparently, Lloyd knew in advance that the acoustic properties of the chapel would not support drums or percussion. Thus, this trio delivers a warm, crystalline sound that Lloyd simply describes as magical. Frisell and Morgan frame the leader’s playing just as ripples in the water would circulate out from the swimming duck in the calmest of waters. There’s little aggression in Lloyd’s playing. It’s lyrical, self-assured, and yet calmly spiritual in tone, leaning more toward Ben Webster in a soulful breathy way than John Coltrane’s often urgent, spiraling solos while maintaining a deep reverence in an approach that we do associate with Trane. Lloyd floats on the delicate, intuitive, and sensitive support from his trio mates whether on saxophone or alto flute.  It’s a casual, conversant, deep language shared among the three, who create soothing harmonics and gorgeous tones throughout. 

Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” opens, a tune dear to Lloyd who met both Johnny Hodges, the altoist who delivered the melody, and Strayhorn in 1966 when Lloyd led his famous quartet with Keith Jarrett, Ron McClure, and Jack DeJohnette. In any case, the meeting with Hodges and Strayhorn left a lasting impression. It was the last tune that Strayhorn wrote, being hospitalized not long after their meeting. Frisell opens Lloyd’s original, “Song My Lady Sings,” also composed in 1966 as the guitarist and bassist Morgan shares their intimate interplay, the likes of which we heard on the 2017 Frisell-Morgan duo album Small Town. Lloyd strolls in casually just shy of the four-minute mark, and the trio continues to engage in light conversation, marked by the saxophonist’s fluttering lines in full command of every register on his horn. 

“Ay Amor,” associated with Cuban pianist Bola de Nieve, begins softly with elongated notes before reaching a gentle swaying Latin pulse.  Morgan engages in beautiful arco support and Frisell solos in keeping with the sensual mood of the piece which gathers the next gear of momentum around the five-minute mark before melting away sweetly. Lloyd turns to his alto flute for the dreamy “Beyond Darkness,” underscored by Frisell’s folk-like chording and picking. The guitarist and bassist each solo in an unhurried fashion before Lloyd returns with the floating melody. The three remain laconic for “Dorotea’s Studio,” a heartfelt tribute to his life partner’s workspace. It’s the longest piece at over twelve minutes, allowing ample solos for each, and is the epitome of that aforementioned analogy to an idyllic, remote pond on a slightly breezy, clear, and sunny afternoon.  We know that Lloyd and Dorotea live in Santa Barbara on a hill overlooking the Pacific. We can only imagine that Dorotea must have quite a view from her relaxing space. 

Just last week, when mentioning Charles Lloyd to a friend, the response was “he’s still around?”  Yes, friends, Lloyd continues to be as inventive as ever, putting out some of his best music in the past decade. This is further evidence of such and whets our appetites for the next two trio servings.

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