Charles Lloyd Ocean Trio plus Mette Henriette
(Barbican. 17 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Mike Collins)
‘What kind of magic is this?’ That was the question in this listener’s mind half way through the epic Charles Lloyd Trio set at the Barbican. After a moment of pin drop silence, Lloyd raises his sax and wispy phrases and keening, fluttering runs trace out the barest outlines of a chant-like melody. Rumbles, scrapes, scattered chords; was that piano or guitar? Both? Then somehow, there’s a discernible momentum, an evocative melody and groove condense, there’s even a waft of gospel. Where did it come from? It was alchemy, aural alchemy.
In pianist Gerald Clayton and guitarist Marvin Sewell, Lloyd has partners who are at the top of their game with distinctive and evolved sounds of their own. The artistry in this trio performance was in blending and collective expression. Lloyd though was the still presence at the centre, He’s spent decades conjuring magic from ensembles like this. This trio is the latest in a ‘trio of trios’ recorded by Blue Note. The Ocean Trio was recorded live, but no recording quite prepares one for a live performance like this. A Lloyd ‘gig’ can gradually become more like an audience or encounter than a concert and this was one such occasion.
The set had begun with whispering phrases from Lloyd, Clayton and Sewell creeping in, ghostly themes appearing and dissolving into group improvisations. The focus repeatedly turned to Clayton who would reset the mood with mutating, thematic developments, or chiming gradually thickening chordal passages, riveting solo elaborations. Then Lloyd would step forward and declaim and swoop over the musical tapestry. The thematic material seemed to come from the Ocean Trio album first The Lonely One, and Hagar the Inuit.
As the set developed, Lloyd sat back for long passages as Clayton and Sewell played solo or developed themes together. Sewell produced an extraordinary growling, country blues episode using the bottleneck to generate another guttural voice. Clayton and Sewell conjured an intense grooving passage that had Lloyd leaping to his feet slowly dancing and had texture with shakers into the piano mics (photo above). Then Clayton appeared to deconstruct a standard, his extraordinary touch producing riveting harmonic movement at barely at barely audible volumes. Then the master stepped forward again, voice strong and warm on tenor singing over Clayton’s reconstruction of the harmony.
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Rapturous applause and a standing ovation greeted the conclusion of the set before an extended encore sent everyone home moved and uplifted, perhaps with a sense of mystery, wonder even, at how the magic descended, but knowing it was remarkable.
The evening was a double bill, and the opening set from Mette Henriette, Norwegian saxophonist and composer, playing material from her recent ECM release Drifting, in a trio of sax, piano (Johan Lindvall) and cello (Judith Hamann). This was an exquisite exercise in still-ness and space. It was perfect palate cleanser and mood setter for what was to come, but also worthy of a feature of it’s own at a future festival.