I’m on record as stating the 2015-2016 Wexner Center jazz season is their most exciting season in recent memory. In keeping with their mix of legends and cutting edge work, these waves crest again with their presentation of saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his quartet The Marvels at the historic Lincoln Theatre. The quartet plays at 8pm on Saturday, February 6th, and tickets are available at this link. Please read below for more information on the musicians including video.
Charles Lloyd is a giant in American music. An exemplar of the melodic thread that ties together the searching, spiritual music of the “new thing” and an earthy rhythmic intensity come by from playing with the giants of R&B when he grew up in Memphis including Bobby “Blue” Bland and Howlin’ Wolf. His music is easily grasped and accessible but rich and dense with ideas and emotional material, through his horn he grapples with a love for the world – even in the pain it causes – and a never-completed search for peace and purity of the soul.
Lloyd’s classic Forest Flower: Live at Monterrey (1966), with an astonishing quartet including a young Keith Jarrett on keys as well as Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, was a benchmark that sold huge numbers to music fans across genres. Forest Flower kicked down doors for open minded music fans to experimental jazz, with the quartet appearing on bills with Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane and led to the first American jazz group tour of the USSR during the cold war. That flush of popularity and resonant music also opened doors for Lloyd himself, leading to sideman appearances on records by The Doors, Canned Heat, and Byrds leader Roger McGuinn as well as a long association with the Beach Boys and Mike Love’s side band Celebration. A combination of that relatively early popularity (Charles Lloyd’s first album as a leader came out only two years before Forest Flower) and the music’s embrace by a popular audience both led to some insider jazz sniping, aided in part by his relative absence in the 1970s and early ’80s from the limelight.
The long-term influence of that quartet and his warm, immediately identifiable growl-croon, slowly grew over those years of rare recordings or live dates, and his reputation rehab began in earnest with a long run of records for European label ECM starting in 1989. I found those records in High School and College, knowing the name Charles Lloyd but largely unfamiliar with his work. In particular, Voice in the Night (with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Billy Higgins), The Water is Wide (with Higgins and Abercrombie, bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist Brad Mehldau), and his response to 9/11, Lift Every Voice (with Abercrombie and Grenadier, Geri Allen on piano, and Billy Hart on drums) were revelatory. Whether on Lloyd’s own glowing originals, standards like “Black Butterfly” or “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” gospels like “The Water is Wide,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” or “There is a Balm in Gilead,” or pop songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or Elvis Costello and Burt Bachrach’s “God Give Me Strength,” I’d never heard that mixture of elements in quite that way at quite that level. The beauty of pastorals and the purity of folk song all played with grit, freedom, and an unwavering devotion to the song.
Charles Lloyd, while racking up very deserved awards including an NEA Jazz Masters, hasn’t rested on his laurels. He’s continued to make invigorating music like his 2013 duets album with pianist Jason Moran, Hagar’s Song, and last year’s righteous, textured Wild Man’s Dance with traditional Greek instruments around a young and hungry quartet of Gerald Clayton, Gerald Cleaver, and Joe Sanders.
Lloyd’s new record, I Long to See You, his first with The Marvels (the band joining Charles Lloyd at the Lincoln concert, augmented by Greg Leisz on steel and slide guitar) and second with Blue Note Records, in many ways harkens back to the folk-song pastoral quality of the ECM records that so enraptured me. He delves into classic pop protests like “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” (with a beautiful vocal guest appearance by Willie Nelson) and “Masters of War,” gospel on “Abide With Me” and public domain tunes like “Shenandoah” with the same gusto as great new originals like the sizzling “Barche Lamsel” and the hard swinging “Of Course, Of Course.” There were some very interesting comments made on a recent New York Times Popcast that drew a direct line between Lloyd’s spiritual populism and current artist Kamasi Washington, that sometimes skepticism from the insiders is fueled by the same thing as the connection to the outside world. It’s not an exaggeration to see Lloyd as a prototype for Washington and it’s a beacon of hope to see Lloyd still making records that amaze so many of us at 77 years old.
Reuben Rogers on bass has a unique knack for coloring vocalists like Dianne Reeves and Kate McGarry and players with vocal approaches to their instrument like fellow visitor to the Wexner Center this season, Joshua Redman, Jimmy Greene, and Donald Harrison, making him particularly suited for playing behind the tonal richness of someone like Lloyd. Eric Harland on drums has a command of wild surprise inside of an easy, rich swing that’s powered records by artists as different as Greg Osby, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and McCoy Tyner. Those two have played with Charles Lloyd for many years. Lloyd’s partner in melody here is Bill Frisell on guitar, a folksier player than many of his other guitar foils, but with the same love for the purity of the song and the same willingness to dig deeper than other players might even think possible. It’s a remarkable band with a remarkable catalog of music, playing one of our best-sounding, intimate concert halls in what I’m willing to bet will be a night no one lucky enough to be there will soon forget.