Album review by Neil Hobkirk
Remember those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups TV ads from the ‘70s? Varied in their particulars, they shared one premise: a chance collision between two people bearing disparate foodstuffs—a chocolate bar in one case and an open jar of peanut butter in the other. After traded accusations (“Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” / “Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!”), a voice delivered the tagline “Two great tastes that taste great together!”
Forgive me, but that antediluvian ad campaign came to mind when I heard the recently recorded first merger of saxophonist Charles Lloyd and guitarist Bill Frisell. As captured on the new Blue Note album I Long to See You—credited to Charles Lloyd & the Marvels—these two icons’ encounter proves sufficiently sublime to withstand comparison to the ridiculous Reese’s TV spot. On the evidence of this record, Lloyd’s late-career pairing with the later-mid-career Frisell comes across as unlikely yet inevitable; audacious yet sensible; and perhaps above all—like a certain chocolaty peanut butter confection—tasty yet tasteful. It works: these guys sound great together!
Especially since his re-emergence in 1981 from ten years’ self-imposed retirement, tenorist/flautist Lloyd has spent enough time in the public eye that his career trajectory’s well known. Success came in 1960 when he replaced Eric Dolphy in drummer Chico Hamilton’s band. It culminated in the 1966 million-selling live album Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey (Atlantic). From 1989 to 2013, Lloyd enjoyed exceptional exposure on ECM Records, a relationship mutually beneficial to him and the label (and comparable to the even longer and more prolific ECM tenure of Keith Jarrett, pianist in Lloyd’s Forest Flower quartet). Thirty years after an isolated Blue Note release in 1985—the Charles Lloyd Quartet’s A Night in Copenhagen—Lloyd returned to the elder label with the wild and woolly live document Wild Man Dance (Blue Note, 2015).
I Long to See You, Lloyd’s more accessible third Blue Note release, tempers his ecstatic tendencies with the earthbound contributions of Bill Frisell. I recall first hearing Frisell as a subtle colourist on Eberhard Weber’s Later That Evening (ECM, 1982), and I particularly still adore his own second record Rambler (ECM, 1985), where the guitarist unlocks a wealth of approaches ranging from icy preciseness to fevered skronk. Frisell today remains a guitarist for all seasons, balancing straightforward technique with oblique experimentalism, but his popularity rests on respectful attentiveness to Americana—grassroots repertoire embracing country music, spirituals and folk songs.
On I Long to See You, Frisell’s influence on Lloyd probably extends to choice of repertoire. “Shenandoah” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” appeared respectively on the six-stringer’s live albums East / West and Further East / Further West (both Nonesuch, 2005), and “Shenandoah” showed up earlier on Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999) with guitarist Ry Cooder helping out. For my money, the Frisell/Lloyd pairing outdoes Frisell/Cooder, imparting greater gravitas and consequence to this traditional tune. Lloyd states the melody reverently against Frisell’s bone-dry accompaniment. A minute in, Eric Harland’s drums begin beating out a funereal tattoo; halfway through, Frisell’s frequent collaborator Greg Leisz solos singingly on pedal steel. Lloyd’s own subdued solo follows, economically encapsulating the melody. Things conclude with his trademark breathy flutters and Frisell’s spectral picking.
“Masters of War” is based on another traditional American tune, “Nottamun Town.” The album opener, it sounds more muscular than Frisell’s earlier guitar/bass/drums live reading, tenor sax imparting urgency as suits the song’s overtly anti-war message. Starting the tune near the bottom of his register, Lloyd’s horn drives matters darkly from the start, abetted by Harland’s hard polyrhythmic drumming. The other member of Lloyd’s regular rhythm team, bassist Reuben Rogers (on bass guitar throughout), proves appropriately propulsive. As the trio trundles out the Dylan number boldly, conveying the weight of war machines forged from military-industrial greed, Frisell and Leisz lend crosshatched string commentary. Ultimately the boss launches into a sax solo that circles watchfully above the fray. Here his tone, ordinarily benign, scalds more than soothes.
Lloyd, Harland and Rogers previously recorded Spanish traditional song “La Llorona” on their quartet record Mirror (ECM, 2010) with pianist Jason Moran. Charles Lloyd’s in fact been exploring traditional and popular repertoire since hooking up with certain American pianists during his ECM years. He’s almost never dealt in jazz standards but has happily delved into spirituals and pop tunes in company with Brad Mehldau (The Water is Wide, 2000), Geri Allen (Lift Every Voice, 2002) and Moran.
Thus for fifteen years or so, Lloyd’s repertoire’s been steadily converging with Frisell’s; their chance collision was fated to occur. In place of a pianist, guitarists Frisell and Leisz share the chordal role in this new Americana-invested assemblage Charles Lloyd & the Marvels. On “La Llorona,” a piece that evokes the ghost of a woman lamenting her lost children, Frisell hauntingly states the melody while Leisz steals/steels in weepingly. The mood here’s dustbowl-desolate. The whole quintet keeps things simple, sticking close to the melody—their m.o. for most of the album. On snare and cymbal Harland quietly takes the tune out, his timekeeping clocking the revolutions of a ghost train’s wheels.
Two more traditional pieces on the album preach devout perseverance in the face of hardship. A mid-twentieth-century social protest song, “All My Trials” belongs in the same ballpark as “Masters of War.” A brief ascent on sax opens, then Lloyd’s bandmates take the tune on a leisurely amble, Harland again keeping time with brushes. A slow stately dance rhythm suits the atmosphere of austerity. Everyone’s playing bathes in simplicity, Lloyd’s tenor front and centre like a stout pillar of probity. “Abide with Me,” a prayer for God to remain present throughout adversity, receives similarly austere treatment. At just 1 min 22 sec, with Lloyd and Frisell recording as a duo, the time-honoured hymn lasts no longer than it needs to sound noble and complete.
To complement the traditional pieces, I Long to See You includes three Lloyd originals. “Of Course, Of Course” served as title track on his second solo LP (Columbia, 1965). Lloyd leads the number jauntily on flute while Harland unceasingly weaves an intricate rhythmic pattern underneath. As on “Masters of War,” the drummer here’s a veritable perpetual motion machine. After the leader’s first flute solo, Frisell and Leisz assert dual guitar dominance for a stretch, appropriate in a tune originally recorded with Lloyd’s original guitar partner Gabor Szabo. Besides Szabo, Lloyd’s Of Course, Of Course quartet included Ron Carter and Tony Williams.
A second Lloyd piece re-recorded with the Marvels, “Sombrero Sam” first appeared on third solo album Dream Weaver (Atlantic, 1966), which featured his famous working quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. “Sombrero Sam” subjects us to the same jaunty mood as “Of Course, Of Course” and likewise features our man on flute. But Lloyd doesn’t turn up until 4:35; until then, Frisell dominates, first restating the melody simply then embroidering it angularly, buoyed by Leisz’s theremin-like pedal steel perorations. Bass and drums eventually kick in to provide restless rhythmic backup.
Recorded sound quality here is typical of the album: immediate and medium-dry, a departure from the elegantly distanced sound picture with which we might identify Lloyd’s music due to his long ECM allegiance. The guitars are heard right up close; Harland’s kit impacts tersely, with minimal decay; and the boss’s sax and flute register forthrightly, conveying that characteristic Lloyd sound—equal parts contented chortle and effusive dolphinspeak. Only Reuben Rogers’ electric bass seems under-represented in the mix, denied full sonic profile.
At 16 min 25 sec, album closer “Barché Lamsel” lasts over twice as long as the next-longest track. Titled after a Buddhist prayer, the piece was meant as “a prayer for peace, a sutra for tenderness” (according to Blue Note’s website). An entirely different proposition from the other Charles Lloyd compositions here, it finds precedents in the exploratory quarter-hour-long exercises “Hymn to the Mother” and “Prayer, The Crossing” on Lift Every Voice.
The composition’s ominous sole theme—recycled (at a lower pitch) from “Prayer, The Crossing”—drops us in dark terrain at dawn, at the start of a journey. On tenor Lloyd beckons the theme in caressingly, against the guitar duo’s expansive harmonic meanderings. The band take turns at the theme, with Lloyd switching to flute twice over the journey’s course. Halfway through this drama of shifting sands, Leisz’s pedal steel scene-steals, elevating the piece from quietly ecstatic to demonstratively so. But the elevation proves momentary, giving way to further flatlands as the other players try on roles. Though structurally open-ended—a loose jam at odds with the album’s song-oriented emphasis—“Barché Lamsel” achieves at least a conclusive momentum, largely in the hands of Harland. For the final third, that peremptory drum sound of his propels the piece to a close in rock-friendly fashion, Lloyd’s tenor tone acquiring a hint of asperity alongside. This extended outro—itself the whole album’s off-ramp—marks a full-circle return to the relative toughness of opener “Masters of War.”
Depending on your point of view, I’ve saved the best or the worst for last. The remaining tracks on I Long to See You both feature vocals possibly out of place on a disc preoccupied with instrumental evocations of well-known lyrics. “You Are So Beautiful,” the Billy Preston / Bruce Fisher staple, was popularized by Joe Cocker’s 1974 recording but originally saw light as a song idea batted between Preston and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson (see “The Secret History of ‘You Are So Beautiful'” by Craig Hlavaty). Wilson sang the tune live with the Boys during the 1970s, that period when Charles Lloyd, on the lam from jazz, actually recorded and performed with them. (Greg Leisz, by the way, recorded with Cocker.) The Marvels quintet approaches the tune in the same manner as “All My Sorrows”: as a reflective slow dance. Frisell picks out the full melody, then Lloyd restates it with his usual burbly exhalations. Harland ensures intimacy, stirring the snare with brushes.
The featured vocalist here? Norah Jones. It’s by no means unpleasant to have her coo “You Are So Beautiful” into your ear, but Norah’s delivery is just too vanilla to make an impact amid ditties with dirt under their fingernails. For me it’s the album’s low point; in fact, Lloyd’s instrumental version on Lift Every Voice sounded likewise pallid. While I’ve never personally been a fan of this maudlin warhorse, I’m very happy to point you to the Marvels’ January 30th Lincoln Center broadcast where Charles truly takes charge of the tune, drawing it out to twice the length of his Blue Note album version. An overwrought pop exercise becomes a pretext for improvising of immense inventiveness and aching delicacy—would that the quintet had played it this way on record! Besides wishing they’d made the tune double in length (and dumped the singer), I long to see a double live album from this crew, to hear more of these songs stretched out revealingly as at Lincoln Center.
The record’s remaining track, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” did not make the live broadcast, but I’m glad it’s here with vocal part intact. Ed McCurdy’s 1950 anti-war song has been much covered and recorded, and Willie Nelson does the fanciful words full justice. Recounting a dream in which “the world had all agreed / To put an end to war,” the country great sounds appropriately tattered and careworn. Despite the band’s upbeat rendering, driven by the drums’ chunky trudge, Nelson’s tone of world-weary resignation notifies us that world peace is indeed just a dream. But fortunately for us, that other vocal track aside, I Long to See You itself’s one dream of an album.