Healing Music for Troubled Times
Charles Lloyd was booked to play at The Blue Note in New York City during the week of September 11. Though his performances were postponed until later in the week, both the club and Lloyd decided to go ahead with the gig, and the saxophonist presented a beautiful and healing experience on the audiences who attended his performances. In a quiet way Lloyd has carried the spiritual and emotional banner of the late John Coltrane, particularly since his return to the U.S. jazz scene in the 1990s. After leading one of the few jazz groups to break through to rock audiences in a major way in the mid-1960s, Lloyd retired from the music scene to spend the ‘70s immersed in his personal spiritual quest. Since hooking up with ECM Records in 1990, Lloyd has released one fine album after another of music that is both healing and meditative yet still searching and pushing at boundaries.
Lift Every Voice, a two-CD set, expands on the territory Lloyd established with his last two recordings, The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins. Since the death of drummer Billy Higgins, Billy Hart takes over the drum chair, and pianist Geri Allen replaces Brad Mehldau. Mark Johnson and Larry Grenadier take turns on bass, and John Abercrombie returns with his trademark guitar work. Abercrombie, influenced by Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and Jim Hall, is a perfect companion to Lloyd, and he and Allen also interact well. The opening track “Hymn to the Mother”, a Lloyd composition, opens with some exposition by Abercrombie over a drone provided by bass and piano. Following some melodic playing by Lloyd, the rhythm section interacts and shifts roles, with Marc Johnson playing a bowed bass solo while Allen and Abercrombie provide the drone, and finally Allen coming out front while Abercrombie and Johnson provide the point of reference. Hart maintains a quiet timekeeping role throughout much of the track. “Hymn to the Mother” is somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” in its ability to maintain a contemplative mood throughout its 15-minute length without ever allowing itself to become merely sonic wallpaper. It is a testament to the interaction between this fine group of musicians that there is always something interesting to listen to despite the track’s lack of harmonic or melodic development.
“You Are So Beautiful” is a much more straightforward jazz ballad, and Lloyd’s gorgeous tone floats over Allen’s robust piano accompaniment and Hart’s gentle but insistent brush work. “Amazing Grace” benefits from the blues and folk-tinged counterpoint between Abercrombie and Lloyd. One of Lloyd’s strengths is his ability to make the tenor saxophone “sing” with all the depth and weight of a vocalist, which can be difficult to do without the benefit of lyrics. He doesn’t throw his musical ideas at you so much as he offers them, putting them out there for anyone who is interested.
Lloyd’s Memphis roots come out on his composition “East Virginia, West Memphis”, a blues that allows both Lloyd and Abercrombie to get to some earthy playing. Everything this ensemble plays is imbued with a spiritual quality, with absolutely nothing coming across as tossed off or thrown away. Once the drum and bass slow blues groove kicks in on this number, Lloyd begins to wail, recalling Coltrane, but with a vocal cry that is all his own. Abercrombie often comes across as an electric guitarist who has found a way to transfer the intimacy of the acoustic to his electric work. That is true on this number, but he cuts loose with the electric in a way that is inspiring and makes one wish that the legions of rock guitarists who make intensive faces while playing the simplest blues licks could be forced to take this demonstration of earnest blues guitar work to heart. Following is the group’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, again a great example of conveying the meaning of a song even without its lyrics. Lloyd shows that it is possible to be delicate without sacrificing depth of sound or meaning, a lesson that smooth jazz players should take to heart. The first disc is rounded out by the Lloyd original “Angel Oak”, “Te Amare” by Silvio Rodriguez, one of revolutionary Cuba’s best pop/folk songwriters, the seldom heard Duke Ellington composition “I’m Afraid”, and Lloyd’s own klezmer-influenced “Hafez, Shattered Heart”.
Disc two continues into heavily spiritual territory with both Lloyd originals and adaptations of several traditional spiritual tunes. First though, there is another beautiful Silvio Rodriguez tune, “Rabo de Nube”, which again benefits from simpatico, organic playing of the rhythm section as a whole. A rendition of the pensive, harmonically sophisticated Billy Strayhorn composition, “Blood Count” follows. “Go Down Moses” has Lloyd sounding as much like Coltrane as he does anywhere on this album. Once the out-of-time introduction gives way to Larry Grenadier’s gently loping bass line, Allen provides the full, open-chord sound that is reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, while Lloyd manages to inject both modal runs and a vocal cry into his sound without ever becoming abrasive. Abercrombie takes a nice turn, managing to be both modal, outside, and bluesy at the same time. “Go Down Moses” is a major high point of this album, which is high praise considering the high caliber of Lift Every Voice from beginning to end.
Lloyd’s composition “Beyond Darkness” allows him to demonstrate his full-bodied flute playing. Just as on tenor sax, Lloyd has developed a voice that may share elements with other players, but is completely his own. Here again Lloyd provides the perfect example of the difference between gentleness and weakness, and the very gentleness of his playing provides a core of confidence and strength that few of today’s more bombastic players can lay claim to. “Wayfaring Stranger” allows the rhythm section, to play more freely while Lloyd again manages to invoke Coltrane without imitating him.
The final group of tracks speaks directly to the concept of spiritual struggle, healing, and life’s difficult journey, a group of topics that Lloyd has been examining, both musically and individually, for much of his life. “Deep River” is a straightforward spiritual adaptation that easily recalls some of Lloyd’s ‘60s work with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has often been referred to as the “Negro National Anthem”, its lyrics having been written by poet and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, with music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. Though the lyrics clearly discuss the struggle for human dignity and civil rights faced by African Americans throughout the nation’s history, they also have a profound spiritual bent that speaks to all people everywhere, particularly in these difficult times:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
The final track, “Prayer, The Crossing” is almost evenly divided between the lengthy, out-of-time opening section (“Prayer”) and (after several seconds of silence) the final uptempo section (“The Crossing”) that exudes an atmosphere of joyous struggle rather than mourning or resignation.
Just as those who heard Lloyd’s performances last September at the Blue Note were able to put aside their fears and doubts for awhile and immerse themselves in Lloyd’s moods and meditations, listeners to this album will find themselves able to do the same. Taken all together, Lift Every Voice provides a sumptuous tapestry that is by turns healing, reverent, mournful, hopeful, and, in the end, celebratory of the human experience. Great art does that, and Lift Every Voice is unquestionably great art, and easily one of the year’s best jazz recordings.