Finding hope amid horror
Lift Every Voice (ECM)
Before Miles Davis plugged in and shocked the jazz police and concurrently began to share billings with the Grateful Dead and the other avatars of rock music, the Charles Lloyd Quartet was part of the psychedelic ballroom scene. Featuring then-newcomers Keith Jarrett on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums, with either Ron McClure or Cecil McBee on bass, Lloyd presented the same uncompromising acoustic jazz to audiences of Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service fans that had floored the hardcore jazzers at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Now, some 35 years and many albums later, Charles Lloyd has released a two-CD set of extraordinary depth and maturity.
Much of Lift Every Voice has a meditative quality, perhaps a carryover from Lloyd's own immersion in Transcendental Meditation. As has been widely reported in the jazz press, Lift Every Voice had its genesis when Lloyd was in New York City in September of 2001 for a series of club performances. Two days after he arrived, the momentous terrorist attacks, now burned into our collective consciousness as "9/11," tore the city and indeed our entire world apart. Lift Every Voice, then, is one artist's attempt to craft beauty from horror in an attempt to uplift and inspire a heartsick world.
Lloyd's current group includes several generations of jazz musicians, with the venerable Billy Hart on drums, Geri Allen on piano, John Abercrombie on guitar and Marc Johnson and Larry Grenadier taking turns on bass (and playing together on "Nocturne"). The first CD opens with "Hymn to the Mother," a long piece which has an insistent beat somewhat reminiscent of "In a Silent Way." It begins softly with just guitar, bass and drums, gradually increasing in volume as Lloyd's distinctive tenor saxophone and then Allen's piano are added to the mix.
The lightweight pop tune, "You Are So Beautiful," is given added depth in a straightforward reading without guitar. The next song, "Amazing Grace," is the first of several gospel numbers on this recording. It is gracefully played as a ballad, without extensive improvisation. Lloyd's blues and R&B roots turn up on "East Virginia, West Memphis," which starts with a Hendrix-influenced guitar solo before the "jazzier" side of the piece gets under way. Lloyd then duets with Abercrombie over bass and drums. Deep blues solos by Lloyd and Abercrombie over Hart's rolling tom toms provide the emotional release that great blues always do.
Marvin Gaye's classic "What's Going On" is played fairly straight, with Hart's brushes providing a roiling undercurrent throughout. "Angel Oak," another Lloyd original, features his unique tone in a ballad played over Abercrombie's understated guitar. Lloyd and Abercrombie play the melody of "Te Amare" in unison before each solos in this more up-tempo song. The relatively unknown Duke Ellington composition "I'm Afraid," is another ballad, with Allen appropriately beginning the piece by herself. The first CD ends with an unaccompanied invocation entitled "Hafez, Shattered Heart," which is played on an instrument known as the taragato. Its reedy, almost nasal quality gives the piece a Mideastern flavor.
The second disc continues in the same vein as the first, mixing gospel tunes with compositions by Lloyd and others. "Rabo de Nuba" is a ballad featuring soft solos by Lloyd, Abercrombie and Allen. Billy Strayhorn's classic "Blood Count" follows, played respectfully by the group without guitar. The traditional "Go Down Moses" begins with a bowed bass solo by Johnson, which leads into an intense ensemble performance which echoes without imitating John Coltrane's classic quartet work. Billy Hart's polyrhythmic drumming, in particular, drives this piece to heights not found elsewhere in this set. The intensity level returns to earth with the only flute piece on this album, Lloyd's "Beyond Darkness." This mid-tempo excursion leaves the listener wishing for more of Lloyd's wonderful flute playing.
Two more traditional pieces, "Wayfaring Stranger," and "Deep River" follow the "two-bass hit" of the moody "Nocturne." In "Wayfaring Stranger," Lloyd demonstrates how a musician can be inspired by another, John Coltrane, without being a mere imitator. Allen's playing is showcased to great advantage here. "Deep River" is taken at a slightly higher tempo, beginning with Lloyd and Abercrombie playing the melody in unison and later features Abercrombie soloing in a more traditional jazz vein than elsewhere on this album. The title song of the album is next. Intriguingly "Lift Every Voice" is the shortest song here, leaving little room for improvisation.
The collection ends with a two-part composition entitled "Prayer, The Crossing." As might be expected, the first movement is solemn and, like "Wayfaring Stranger," slightly reminiscent of John Coltrane. After a pause between movements, "The Crossing" turns out to be a joyous and lighthearted reworking of "Hej da" (pronounced "hey daw"), which first appeared on the 1968 release "Live in Europe ." With this song, Lloyd seems to be saying that with faith and introspection, we may still find delight in the dance of life.