Charles Lloyd: Charles Lloyd: Quartets

John Kelman By

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ECM's Old & New Masters Edition series was not just created to bring material back into print. Some has been available on CD before, but an even bigger carrot for fans of the label is material that has never been on compact disc, like bassist Arild Andersen's three 1970s recordings, collected on Green in Blue (2010), or first-time full two-CD reissues of double albums like guitarist Terje Rypdal's Odyssey (1975), which also includes a previously unreleased live set, or pianist Chick Corea's live duo recording with vibraphonist Gary Burton, In Concert (1980), collected in the Crystal Silence—The ECM Recordings 1972-1979 box.

There are plenty more surprises to come, but another purpose of the Old & New Masters Edition series is to collect records together that have some kind of core concept, like drummer Jack DeJohnette's four Special Edition recordings, recently released as Special Edition (2013) and including one album appearing on CD for the first time, bassist Eberhard Weber's three releases with his Colours group on Colours (ECM, 2010), and saxophonist Jan Garbarek's three dates with pianist Bobo Stenson, collected as Dansere (2012). Stenson is another connecting thread on saxophonist/flautist Charles Lloyd's Quartets, but he's not the only thing that distinguishes the five recordings collected into this Old & New Masters Edition box.

Quartets represents Lloyd's full return to leading groups after a lengthy hiatus following his renowned 1960s albums with DeJohnette and pianist Keith Jarrett. Some will argue that it was French pianist Michel Petrucciani who pulled Lloyd out of retirement in the mid-'80s, and they'd be right, but only to a point; that relationship only lasted for two years, after which the saxophonist went silent again, at least in terms of recording under his own name.

All that changed in 1989, when Lloyd was invited by ECM label head Manfred Eicher to come to Rainbow Studio in Oslo to make a record with a group that already had its own history. Pianist Bobo Stenson, double bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen had worked together with Jan Garbarek in the 1970s, releasing two of the three seminal recordings collected on Dansere—1974's Witchi-Tai-To and 1976's Dansere (that Danielsson and Christensen would ultimately be seconded for Jarrett's "Belonging" Quartet with Garbarek is, of course, another story). By teaming this group up with Lloyd it accomplished two things: first, it got Lloyd writing and recording again; second, it reunited this trio of Nordics (two Swedes and a Norwegian) who had not played together in some time and who, with the exception of Christensen—who, along with Jack DeJohnette, had become one of ECM's two most-called drummers—had not recorded for the label in over a decade.

The result, Fish Out of Water, was released in 1990 and, while a welcome return for Lloyd with some attractive new material, it was more a harbinger of even better things to come, as Lloyd slowly began to build a quartet that, finally settling in 1993, would continue for five more years and see Lloyd through to mid-'98, when he would begin working almost exclusively with American—or, in cases like bassist Dave Holland, on the saxophonist's Voice in the Night (1999), American-resident—musicians.

That said, the performances on Fish Out of Water are certainly strong, with tracks like the gorgeous "Mirror"—to be revisited, more than a decade later, on his next regular working quartet's 2010 album of the same name—demonstrative of Lloyd's singular way with a ballad. Lloyd's singular skill on flute can also be heard on the closing ballad, "Tellaro." Lloyd has all-too-often been compared to John Coltrane when it comes to saxophone, and there's little doubt that there was an influential connection, but he's always been a more intrinsically lyrical player with a more buttery tone, one who can build to greater dynamic peaks, as he does on Fish Out of Water's opening title track, but his version of Coltrane's sheets of sound is less intense, less relentless. Still, Stenson, Danielsson and Christensen follow him with open ears, allowing the tune to ebb and flow over a broad dynamic range.

One thing the Nordics are particularly good at is playing rubato, and Lloyd exploits that talent on "The Dirge," which takes nearly four of its ten minutes to settle into a defined pulse. Until Fish, Stenson hadn't recorded for the label in 13 years, and his sole solo effort, Underwear (1971) remains woefully out of print, beyond a brief, limited edition Japanese release. His participation in Lloyd's group also rekindled his own relationship with the label, leading to a more spread-out run of trio recordings that began with Reflections (1996) and continues to this day with the most recent (and exceptional) Indicum (2012). Lloyd must have found him a most simpatico foil, as he's the only player to appear on all five of Quartet's collected recordings. But if Fish Out of Water demonstrated anything, it was that Lloyd (and Stenson) was back. Not yet at full strength, perhaps, but most certainly back.

Two years and four months passed before Lloyd returned to Oslo and Rainbow Studios to record his follow-up, Notes from Big Sur (1992), but it was worth the wait. If Fish Out of Water suffers in any way, it's that Christensen had, by this time, become a far more textural drummer, less concerned with delivering a clearer sense of time and, instead, working heavily with implication. In his own brief liner notes to a subsequent ECM release of self-chosen tracks from his vast ECM discography as a sideman, :rarum XX: Selected Recordings (2004), Christensen wrote:

I. Band feeling is more important than bravura

II. Less is More

III. How fast can you play slower?

IV. A beat is not always what you think it is.

All admirable traits, to be sure, and ones that have served his career very, very well, but not, perhaps, so well-matched with Lloyd's ultimate intent, coming, as the saxophonist does, from the American tradition where a certain element of swing is a prerequisite. For Notes from Big Sur, Lloyd made two important changes, one that stuck and one that didn't. First, he replaced Christensen with Ralph Peterson, a fine, potential powerhouse drummer with clear and deep roots in the tradition through his work with the young lions group Out of the Blue and his own early recordings as a leader including Ralph Peterson Presents the Fo'Tet (Blue Note, 1990), with his then-nascent Fo'Tet, featuring clarinetist Don Byron; still, his playing on Lloyd's sophomore release for ECM is considerably more subdued than either, suggesting, perhaps, that he was simply not the right fit for the saxophonist.

The second and ultimately more important change was recruiting Anders Jormin to replace Danielsson. Jormin is a younger Swedish bassist who, by that time, was also playing regularly with Stenson (who recommended him to Lloyd) in his trio with drummer Rune Carlsson, heard on the wonderful Very Early, recorded in 1986 and later issued on CD by Dragon in 1997. While Danielsson was a strong choice, Jormin had already formed a firmer bond with Stenson, and possessed a particularly lyrical bent, singing tone and skill with a bow that made him a player of considerable potential—and, ultimately, a leader in his own right.

The result is an album that swings harder on tracks like "Eyes of Love" and remains equally steeped in darker balladry on "Requiem" while occupying a space somewhere in-between on "Sam Song." Danielsson has always been a faultless anchor and strong soloist, but here, Jormin becomes a more equal partner (as he is in any group in which he participates) in Lloyd's increasingly egalitarian group. Nowhere is this clearer than on the two-part "Pilgrimage to the Mountain" that bookends four additional Lloyd compositions and ultimately ends the recording. Both tracks begin with Jormin alone and shine a bright spotlight on the bassist's soaring arco, one of unfailing accuracy in both tone and use of harmonics. Jormin had already developed a number of extended techniques for his instrument, also demonstrated on his own solo recordings like Eight Pieces (Dragon, 1988), and between his broader purview and inherent chemistry with Stenson, clearly Lloyd had found his bassist, as he remained in the quartet from this point forward.

Another change was that Lloyd left his flute at home for this date, focusing solely on tenor saxophone. It's a choice he made for the quartet's next record, The Call (1993), recorded 20 months after Big Sur, and the date where Lloyd finally settled on a lineup with which he'd remain through to the late 1990s. The Call is also the first of Lloyd's albums to adopt what would become an ECM standard: beginning with five seconds of silence. Much has been written about these five seconds, including an entire chapter in the (sadly) German-only book , Der Blaue Klang (Wolke Verlagsges, 2010). Here, as a lead-in to the rubato "Nocturne," which Lloyd would revisit nearly a decade later on Lift Every Voice (2002), it acts as a further calming device; a chance to breathe and clear the mind before the music begins, the same way Eicher describes his approach to recording in All About Jazz's recent coverage of the ECM Exhibition in Munich, ECM: A Cultural Archeology: "You have to be empty before you come to a recording, and then start again."

With The Call, Lloyd enlists Billy Hart, a contemporary of the saxophonist's (born two years and eight months later, in 1940); the saxophonist's first two recordings for ECM were undeniably strong an essential efforts, there's a sense of confluence on The Call that makes it, and the two records that follow, even more successful. Stenson may come from Northern Europe, but his knowledge of the tradition runs deep, even as he brings an alternate perspective to his solo intro to "Song" that somehow manages to marry his own cultural roots with Lloyd's more complex lineage, which is a combination of African, Cherokee, Mongolian, and Irish roots.

Lloyd has long been about cultural cross-pollination, even as his feet remain firmly rooted in the American tradition, and The Call represents his most seamless marriage of a multiplicity of concerns to that point. A deeply spiritual man, he can also be quite enigmatic as a bandleader. In a 2004 All About Jazz interview with Jormin, the bassist revealed much about Lloyd's approach:

"His compositions," explains Jormin, "were quite often just sketches, a little unfinished or a little vague, probably on purpose. He would come with directions, because we did rehearse—not very much, but we did rehearse. But his directions were very typical Charles Lloyd—I can give you an example from my first rehearsal, which I'll never forget. He looked at me and said, 'Give me some St. Petersburg.' That was what he wanted to hear from me, and I was of course, quite unsure. What kind of music is that? And another, 'Take me to India.' Most of his instructions were so emotional and colored by his imagination and his way of thinking musically, so what they actually meant, both for me and for Bobo, was, 'Go ahead guys, and play what you think fits the simple sketch I've done.' Bobo and I would also do some work with his compositions—we added a chord here, added a bar there, and suddenly the sketches worked very well. Charles never asked, 'What did you do with this composition, suddenly it sounds good,' but it was ultimately a good collective process."

With the right lineup in place, the collective process becomes even clearer and more compelling on The Call. Like Peterson, Hart's a player capable of great power, swinging with great authority on "Glimpse" and turning even fierier on "Imke," but he's also capable of delicacy and texture, with his brushwork on "Amarma" particularly tasteful. Hart also lights a fire under Lloyd on the album closer, "Brother on the Rooftop," an incendiary (and, for this quartet, first-time) duo with just Hart and Lloyd that still manages to close the album on a lyrical note, even as the saxophonist resorts to the occasional screech and multiphonic. With a résumé that includes working with pianists Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Joe Zawinul, and saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz and Dave Liebman, but also the driving force behind Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert's near-nuclear Man of the Light (MPS, 1977), Hart's reach has always been broad, and by bringing together two Americans with two Europeans, Lloyd had clearly well and truly arrived. Again.

That Lloyd's career continues with such strength two decades later as he approaches his 75th birthday, and despite considerable change and diversity in his ECM discography once this quartet's life was over, is a testament to Eicher's confidence in Lloyd's instincts—a confidence further proven when, after Eicher produced the five recordings in this box and the subsequent Voice in the Night, he relinquished the producer's role to Lloyd and the saxophonist's wife, Dorothy Darr (whose artwork and photos adorned the original single-disc releases of the five discs in this box), from there on, the duo taking charge of all subsequent recording sessions with the exception of the live Athens Concert, where Eicher reassumes the primary producer role instead of the executive producer title to which he has been credited on the rest of Lloyd's post-new millennium recordings.

It's an important distinction, because with Eicher being a rarity of his own—an active producer who makes every duo a trio, every trio a quartet and every quartet a quintet—his stamp is on these records as well, though in ways that may be less obvious than on some of his other thousand-plus productions for the label. And if Lloyd would, on later recordings, begin to introduce cover material as well as looking back at songs he recorded and released in the 1960s, when he was one of the first jazz artists to sell a million copies of an album—as well as culling material from the period of Quartets on albums including Sangam (2006), Mirror (2010) and Athens Concert (2011)—at this time, he was largely focused on new and original material, with the sole exception of the The Call's penultimate "The Blessing," a rubato tone poem based on "Ramakrishna Pranam," a theme written by Swami Saradananda.

1995's All My Relations continues to build on the strength of Lloyd's solidified quartet, with Lloyd once again introducing flute into the mix, as well as the more nasally Chinese oboe, which he uses on the closing, a cappella "Milarepa." The increasing confidence of the quartet can be heard from the outset on Lloyd's "Piercing the Veil," where the melody is bounced, call-and-response style, with Stenson. By this time, beyond the pianist's own trio—which would release Reflections on ECM the following year, despite being recorded three years prior—Stenson and Jormin were also a part of Tomasz Stanko's new quartet with drummer Tony Oxley, though the Polish trumpeter's music on Bossonossa (Gowi, 1993)—and his ultimate return to ECM, Matka Joanna, the following year—couldn't have been any more different than the space occupied by Lloyd. Still, both Stańko and Lloyd benefited from the more constant work that kept Stenson and Jormin engaged together, their collaborative chemistry growing stronger by the day and, at the same time, more finessed so as to become more intuitive, more subtle and less overt.

Only two tracks make direct references to musical touchstones—"Thelonious Theonlyus" a reflection on the music of Thelonious Monk where Stenson is, if not exactly as idiosyncratic as the song's namesake, certainly playing with a firmer touch and more playful bent; and the gentler "Evanstide, Where Lotus Bloom," where the pianist's love of the work of pianist Bill Evans shines through loud and clear during his opening solo and subsequent trio section with Jormin and Motian that harkens, in the most modern of ways, back to Evans' early trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. The entire album is, however, Lloyd's personal shout-out to the many artists that helped shaped his own voice, from Memphis legend Phineas Newborn, Jr. and best friend/school mate, trumpeter Booker Little, to blues artists like "Howlin' Wolf," emerging artists such as vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and more established leaders like drummer Chico Hamilton and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. But more than homage, it's a 70-minute love letter, with Lloyd's flute also making a welcome return on the riff-driven "Little Peace."

The title track is, for its first half, another firebrand duo for Hart and Lloyd (on tenor), before Jormin joins in, swinging hard as Lloyd continues to solo with an unusually sharp edge, Stenson finally joining in to make clear what should have been clear all along: this is a bright-tempo'd blues, where Stenson turns in a solo of effortless invention and irrefutable credibility. For those who suggest that Nordic players can't swing and can't play a proper blues, "All My Relations" lays easy waste to both claims—and one more: that you can't find this kind of music on ECM. Label naysayers seem to spend a lot of time espousing what the label isn't, when the truth is it's as much a part of the evolving tradition of the last 40 years as any label; it simply refuses to limit its purview to strict adherence to any tradition.

Listening to Quartet's five albums consecutively—recorded across a span of just over seven years, with a stable lineup for just under half that time—reveals that the best is saved for last. 1997's Canto may have been Lloyd's last recording with his transatlantic quartet before focusing on musicians at home, but it's certainly the one on which every member shines the most.

On the nearly 17-minute opener, "Tales of Rumi," Jormin opens with his extended pizzicato technique of plucking the strings behind his fingers on the neck rather than down below over the body of his double bass, returning to conventional form for a solo of singing lyricism before flipping once again, as Stenson enters, first playing the strings inside the piano box—plucking and strumming, harp-like but also taking advantage of harmonics in distinct fashion over Jormin's slowly emerging groove. When he finally returns to the keys and Hart enters, all delicate cymbals and spare rim shots, the pianist continues for another full two minutes before Lloyd enters halfway into its sixth minute. Building slowly to a Middle-Eastern-informed, dervish-like melody, the floor suddenly drops out of time until Lloyd reiterates the theme, but at a faster clip as the song takes off both in tempo and strength, with Stenson contributing another impressive solo that makes his work on this track some of his best—both on this album and the box overall.

And that's just Canto's first track. The quartet's strength in delivering ballads with unshakable commitment ("How Can I Tell You"), darker-hued poetry where the connection amongst the players has reached a rarely matched level ("Desolation Sound"), energetic, post-Coltrane modality ("M") and, with the powerful closing rubato tone poem "Durga Duraga," the ultimate delivery on promises made when Lloyd first joined the label in 1989, makes Canto both bittersweet, in being this quartet's final recording, and joyous, in its demonstrative growth over the course of seven years.

Lloyd would go on to greater successes and even further diversity on albums like Which Way Is East (2004), his double-disc set of home recordings with drum legend Billy Higgins, made just a few months before his passing; Sangam, a daring trio recording with drummer Eric Harland and table master Zakir Hussain; and, this very year, Hagar's Song (2013), an absolutely masterful duo record with Jason Moran, the pianist of his current quartet, which, now six years old, is the longest-standing group in a career now in its sixth decade.

But Quartets is where it all began, setting the stage for everything that follows and is also a testament to Eicher's instincts. With his career in relative stasis, Lloyd could have come to the label and delivered something less; instead, beginning with the very first album in Quartets and through to its fifth and final, Lloyd proves that he had plenty left to say and lots of mileage remaining in the tank. That he's still going strong—stronger, perhaps, even—nearly a quarter century later only confirms ECM's ability to bring established artists (sometimes back) into the fold—pianists Jarrett and Steve Kuhn, trumpeters Enrico Rava and Stańko, and singers Robin Williamson and Savina Yannatou being just a handful of examples—and provide them with both the forum and the freedom to make some of the absolute best music of their career.

Track Listing: CD1 (Fish Out of Water): Fish Out of Water; Haghia Sophia; The Dirge; Bharati; Eyes of Love; Mirror; Tellaro. CD2 (Notes from Big Sur): Requiem; Sister; Pilgrimage to the Mountain - Part 1, Persevere; Sam Song; Takur; Monk in Paris; When Miss Jessye Sings; Pilgrimage to the Mountain - Part 2, Surrender. CD3 (The Call): Nocturne; Song; Dwiija; Glimpse; Imke; Amarma; Figure in Blue, Memories of Duke; The Blessing; Brother on the Rooftop. CD4 (All My Relations): Piercing the Veil; Little Peace; Thelonious Theonlyus; Cape to Cairo Suite (Hommage to Mandela); Evanstide, Where Lotus Bloom; All My Relations; Hymn to the Mother; Milarepa. CD5 (Canto): Tales of Rumi; How Can I Tell You; Desolation Sound; Canto; Nachiketa's Lament; M; Durga Durga.

Personnel: Charles Lloyd: tenor saxophone, flute (CD1, CD4), Chinese oboe (CD4), Tibetan oboe (CD5); Bobo Stenson: piano; Palle Danielsson: double bass (CD1); Jon Christensen: drums (CD1); Anders Jormin: double bass (CD2-5); Ralph Peterson: drums (CD2); Billy Hart: drums (CD3-5).

Title: Quartets | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records



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