Athens Concert is, bar none, a 2011 highlight. The only problem is, in what category does it belong?
Athens Concert is what happens when a group of musicians don't commit to a particular genre. Charles Lloyd is something of a modern ambassador for the old guard of jazz sax. Maria Farantouri is a legendary Greek singer who has navigated her operatic style through her homeland's dramatic themes of love, loss, exile, mid-century protest and not knowing where your boat is headed. From a thousand-foot view, you may think that there is very little overlap in their careers or that perhaps they are mutually exclusive. But a closer look at Lloyd's recent career, particularly his work with pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers, makes it plain as day that the veteran saxophonist's current interest in jazz is taking him beyond the confines of what it means to be a post-bop legend in the 21st century. His 2008 album with the same combo, Rabo de Nube, was the sound of jazz music ebbing and flowing, showing you one thing then giving you another. Parts of it were intensely focused and other parts were gloriously non-committal. Take that latter trait and carry it through to Athens Concert, an in-concert recording at the open air Odeon of Herodes Atticus courtesy of Lloyd, his aforementioned band, Farantouri, and two additional Greek musicians on lyra and piano. Followers of Charles Lloyd will not be shocked; this double album only affirms the fact that the man takes his music where it wants to go.
Maria Farantouri has a very mellow and warm voice, even when the music is getting kicked up a few notches. If there is a better match of female voice to Lloyd and company's bleedings of jazz and world classics, I don't want to know what it is. Her voice on tunes such as "Kratissa ti zoi mou (I Kept Hold of My Life)", a song she introduced to Lloyd, seems to do no wrong. "Blow Wind," a song that Charles Lloyd actually had in mind for Farantouri to sing beforehand, could actually bear a little more intrusion from her. Then again, her utterance of the song's title makes a good metaphorical case of how, at times, one can forget that the wind is present.
The album's centerpiece is the "Greek Suite," a combination of early hymns, traditional melodies from Greece's neighboring islands, and music by Mikis Theodorakis and Nikos Kypourgos with the two of the three movements separated by "Taxidi sta Kythera" and the meditative “Prayer”. This is where Greek musician Socratis Sinopoulos comes out to perform on the lyra, a three-stringed bowed instrument that satisfies the music of Crete's need for something that serves as a cross between a violin and a saw. Sometimes Lloyd's saxophone harmonizes with Farantouri here and sometimes Sinopoulos' lyra does. Unless one is paying very close attention, it's rather easy to let one slide from your ear as the other enters. But the segue of "Prayer" into the second movement of the "Greek Suite" is where things start to get deep. Not deep in a condescending you-won't-get-this-because-it's-sophisticated sort of way, but in a way that wipes clean all of those pesky labels that prevent people from thoroughly enjoying world music mash-ups. The harmonies deepen; the peaks stretch and the rhythms start to sway with a profound sense of instinct that could only come from a well-calibrated band.
And, as expected, Lloyd's band is outstanding. Jason Moran's decisive playing, a delightful hybrid of classical moods hand-leading a jazz musician, elevates the musicality transferred from one member of the combo to another. Eric Harland spends an admirable amount of time backing off and letting the music guide him rather than the other way around (not that I mind his aggressive side – his album as bandleader, Voyager: Live by Night, was terrific). Takis Farazis, Greek musician and resident arranger for the traditional themes to Athens Concert, provides additional piano for the "Greek Suite." And though it's difficult to tell just where in the music two pianos are taking over, that is most likely a very good thing.
Athens Concert is, bar none, a 2011 highlight. The only problem is, in what category does it belong? You could spend 87 minutes trying to figure out if it's jazz, world music, or some offshoot of the two, but that's futile. Just absorb and enjoy. It's impossible not to.