Charles Lloyd & the Marvels – Tone Poem(Blue Note. CD review by John Bungey)Charles Lloyd says he has enjoyed lockdown – in part. This elder statesman of the saxophone has always relished isolation and solitude, and for a year he’s avoided travel and the departure lounge life. But, as he told Downbeat, that has meant less music-making and since his early teens playing has been central to his life. “I’ve always lived in the music because the other stuff didn’t make sense to me,” is his poignant way of putting it.
This fine set seems to have been recorded well before lockdown. Back in 2018 during an interview in Paris, a beaming Lloyd played me the version of Ornette Coleman’s Peace that opens Tone Poem. In fact it’s the Coleman piece that follows, Ramblin’, that really hits home. Drummer Eric Harland starts up a dancing second-line rhythm, Reuben Rogers strums a chord on electric bass while Greg Leisz conjures the whistle of a passing train from his pedal-steel. Over the top Lloyd’s tenor loops and curls – he’s never sounded so joyous or his band so funky. Bill Frisell‘s choppy rhythm guitar is mostly low in the mix here; he moves closer to centre stage next on Leonard Cohen’s song of hope for dark times, Anthem. The bittersweet feel is similar to Frisell’s take on Have a Little Faith 20 years ago.
Tone Poem is Lloyd’s third set with this line-up. It’s mostly covers – Thelonious Monk, the Hungarian Gabor Szabo also – and this time with no guest vocalists. That will be a relief to those lovers of jazz chanteuses who didn’t take to alt country singer Lucinda Williams’s gritty renditions on Vanished Gardens (me, I had no problem). The Marvels are actually the least jazz of any Lloyd line-up. There’s little of the questing experiment that, say, pianist Jason Moran brought – or going back to a previous century, Keith Jarrett. Instead, Frisell and Leisz embrace Americana, blues and, especially, the warm tones and textures of country rock. The most mellow moments come with the Latin melody Ay Amor, a swoon of a tune that seems to have wafted in from Ipanema Beach. The mastery of the playing – Frisell’s in particular – rescues it from kitsch. A bonus track brings more prettiness, but this time over a firm backbeat, with a faithful reading of In My Room by the Beach Boys, a band whom Lloyd hung out with in the late Sixties.
But the master still likes to mix it up: the self-penned title track begins with an intricate, intense dialogue between saxophone and percussion. And for me he’s one of the few players who can make the flute a convincing jazz tool (Anchorman’s got a lot to answer for). He’s at his best in the ten-minute Pied Piper dance of Lady Gabor – a jam-band workout for jazzers.
The saxophonist doesn’t venture towards the unknown with the Marvels as he has in past lives, but this more grounded version of Lloyd is one your jazz-sceptical friends can appreciate too. All those critics who put the Marvels albums of 2016 and 2018 in their best-of-year lists will, oh dear, have to repeat themselves again – Tone Poem is a no-risk disc.