Saxophonist Charles Lloyd started his career in the 1960s apprenticing with jazz heavyweights Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley and then became a sensation by fronting a quartet that channeled some of the energy of John Coltrane on the power of a rhythm section featuring pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. A period of searching led him to play with a version of the Beach Boys, to move into meditative music, and eventually to return to jazz.
Recently, he has settled into a style that should not surprise us: a meditative kind of instrumental Americana. This is music that uses some of Coltrane’s questing feeling, a good dose of country/rock grit, and no small amount of meditative focus. Through it all, Lloyd found his voice on the horn too, getting away from the gravity of Coltrane and finding a gentler tone with a powdered edge that is still capable of rising up to cry sweetly with yearning. He can still spin a long, searching line that flutters in a 1960s kind of way, but set against guitars played by Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz his story is different than before.
Vanished Gardens comes as Lloyd turns 80 years old, and his birthday present is the presence here of the transcendent singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams, who has also recently recorded with Frisell. She appears on five of the ten tracks and, while the instrumental music is superb, the vocal tracks are a brilliant album of their own. At this point in her career, Williams sometimes lapses into a mannered creakiness, but she remains a riveting storyteller who happens to be at her best here. “Dust” is based on a poem written by her dad set to an irresistible minor melody that resolves in each chorus to the descending line “even your thoughts are dust”. Drummer Eric Harland is critical here, powering what could have been a dirge with syncopated double-time figures that make the song more of a parade during Lloyd’s urgent solo.
Williams Louisiana roots are suggested by Harland’s approach to “Unsuffer Me”, where he creates a hip, slightly New Orleans-y parade groove that powers a lyric plea from the singer to “undo my fear”. It’s a terrifying list poem or a song, and when Frisell’s Telecaster and Leisz’s pedal steel take over between vocal verses, things are just as suggested. Williams longs for bliss, for knowledge, for feeling, and the band provides all of that. Bassist Reuben Rogers throbs, as does Lloyd who doesn’t so much play a solo as he just enters the fray in pulses. The singer’s “Ventura” is little different from the way it sounded on her 2003 album World Without Tears, but again Lloyd is a natural match, flowing around the vocal and the guitars with a silky belonging, never taking over but acting as a mate, a pastel partner.
The standout vocal track, however, is not a Lucinda Williams tune. “Angel” is by Jimi Hendrix, and Williams sings it with weary hope, narrating a story of a conversation that makes us all want to wake up each morning. The band is limited to just Frisell’s resonant guitars and Lloyd on tenor, and you would think that the song’s simple cycle of four chords might give them too little material to make interesting, but in fact it the simplicity that works—it makes the music transparent, direct, and entirely beautiful.
Also limited to guitar and saxophone: a gorgeous reading of “Monk’s Mood” that begins as a solo piece for Frisell and then opens like a flower as Lloyd enters. Neither moves far away from the melody throughout, wisely. Like so much of the music here, there is a gravity to it, respect. You hear this feeling as well in the band’s instrumental reading of “Ballad of the Sad Young Men”, a slow take that begins with the guitars on the melody and then brings in Lloyd for a majestic statement. Lloyd moves over to flute for “Blues for Langston and LaRue”, a slow swinger that is the only real swinger here, a controlled kind of blues funk we don’t hear enough of these days.
More typical of the band (dubbed “The Marvels” for this and Lloyd’s previous recording with them without Williams) are two strong tracks of instrumental atmosphere. “Vanished Gardens” is a pointillistic one-chord improvisation build a staccato guitar figure from Frisell that invites the whole band to splash about with a tip-toed joy. The band resists the temptation to let anyone “take a solo”, instead engaging in a playful group jam for nine fun minutes. “Defiant”, the opening track, is a mournful slice of Americana that shuffles along a country road, cooled by washes of electric guitar and driven by a loping a rhythm section that proves—as if Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, and so many others had not made this case repeatedly in recent years—that the various genres of American music are really just one beautiful thing, connected by history and cross-pollination.
The history suggested by this music is arguably an important commentary on the United States in 2018. Leisz’s dobro and pedal steel are associated with country music in various forms, though he came up in the 1960s culture of Southern California, and he has played with Clapton and Allison Krause in equal measure. Frisell started as a rocker too, obsessed with the Beatles as much as Charlie Christian, yet we think of him as “jazz”. Bassist Reuben Rogers is from the Virgin Islands by way of the Berklee College of Music and, like drummer Eric Harland, has played with everyone you can imagine in jazz. Harland is from Houston, Texas, a hotbed of a certain kind of soulful jazz, and brings a roots groove wildly different from country but not unconnected. Lloyd? He’s from Memphis: an American musical hub if ever there was one. In the current era, this is simply a band that crosses borders, crosses water, connects styles, and yet sings with one voice.
Let’s think about that.
Vanished Gardens sits in a sweet spot for Charles Lloyd, putting him at an intersection of different forms that have defined his career, from jazz standards to American pop singing, to meditative roots music. Despite early success, the recorded evidence is that Lloyd—at 80—is in his mature prime. May it continue.