Charles Lloyd – Quartets ECM Box Set (2013)

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The story of Quartets, the new ECM box set covering five of Charles Lloyd’s albums, isn’t a sweeping career retrospective; it would take at least twenty discs to sufficiently do that for this tenor saxophonist whose become a lion in jazz over a fifty year span. Instead, this is about a second act.

A crossover success story in jazz that was rare in that it didn’t involve any commercial concessions, Lloyd largely dropped out of the music scene by the early 70’s, returning about a dozen years later at the inspiration of a young, unknown French pianist by the name of Michel Pettrucciani. But while that set Petrucciani’s career into motion much as Lloyd had done for Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette in the 60s, Lloyd retreated back to his peaceful confines at California’s Big Sur after making a couple of live records with the prodigal piano player. It wasn’t until 1989 when Lloyd cemented his return to the scene by signing with ECM Records.

This collection of reissues covers Lloyd’s initial ECM albums with the sax/piano/bass/drums configuration: Fish Out Of Water (1989, Notes From the Big Sur (1991), The Call (1993), All My Relations (1994) and Canto (1996). All of these releases are linked by pianist Bobo Stenson participating as the only member of the quartet besides Lloyd himself over all five albums, a distinction that also defines the Jan Garbarek Dansere box set from last year, covering recordings from nearly twenty years earlier. But make no mistake: this is Lloyd’s show all the way, with every single composition his and serving as a compelling reintroduction to Lloyd with all his vast facilities intact, an easily identifiable voice on sax that’s sensitive, emotional and highly nuanced.

The first of Lloyd’s fab five, Fish Out Of Water (1989), even employs the same backing band as Garbarek’s 1975 jewel Dansere, with Stenson, Palle Danielsson (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) reuniting once again behind an iconic saxophonist. With Lloyd’s original songs and his leadership, coupled with a Scandinavian rhythm section and Manfred Eicher’s peerless production, Fish is American soul with European elegance. The title song is a crisp yet relaxed swing, but extended, episodic melodies that soon begin with “The Dirge” are just as representative of Lloyd’s style, setting a pattern for all of these records. The middle of the album contain most of the highlights, with the appealing, folk-like strain of “The Dirge,” the beautifully unfolding “Bharati” — a Stenson highlight with perceptive support from Danielsson and Christensen — and “Eyes Of Love,” a bright melody with superb supporting drumming by Christensen. Stenson also reels off a virtuosic solo on “Mirror.”

Fish is for the most part, an understated jazz album; the follow up Notes From The Big Sur is even more mellow. Anders Jormin and Ralph Peterson, with Jormin a somewhat more adventurous more bassist and Peterson a master with the brushes, replace Danielsson and Christensen, respectively. Lloyd is no less affecting on these slower numbers, and “Requiem” attests to that. Jormin puts a bow to his bass in kicking off the tracks “Pilgrimage To The Mountain, Part 1,” “Takur,” and “Pilgrimage To The Mountain, Part 2,” underscoring the chamber jazz lilt that characterizes much of the album. It’s not until the fourth cut that the group actually swings, but “Sam Song” makes up for lost time: Stenson is playing so full of vigor and Peterson seems to egg him on with brush bombs. Later on, Jormin unfolds a lyrical, LaFaro-like bass solo. “When Miss Jessye Sings” is a lengthy, Coltrane type of chant, a stretched-out “Love Supreme” styled intro that segues into a lazy swing, and Stenson even comps it like McCoy Tyner.

The Call (1993) establishes the quartet lineup for the rest of the disc: Peterson is replaced by the great Billy Hart on drums. It’s an album very similar to the prior one, but Hart wastes no time making his presence known from the opener, “Nocturne.” Here, and on so many Lloyd recordings that follow, his loose-limbed style lights fires under songs in non-disruptive ways. It fits the style of Lloyd, who likes to play freely but also harmoniously, and he does so effectively on this tune as well as “The Blessing.” “Brother On The Rooftop” is an Lloyd/Hart duet whereby Hart is playing entirely off the vibes thrown off by Lloyd.

All My Relations (1994) is my personal favorite because of more chance taking and everyone straight up playing their asses off. “Piercing The Veil” finds Lloyd performing red hot straight bop with unbridled energy, a side of him that hadn’t come out much since his early days; he plays like that again on “Thelonious Theonlyus.” “Little Peace,” where Stenson is playing terrifically, is a concise modal piece that is graced by Lloyd’s flute, and for “Milarepa” he plays a Chinese oboe with no accompaniment. The centerpiece song “Cape To Cairo Suite (Hommage To Mandela)” is a tumultuous yet elegant song that’s mostly cloudy with brief moments where the sun peeks through. Hart and his forceful, multi-dimensional drumming is the hero of this episodic piece.

Canto (1996) illuminates the spiritual side of Lloyd most brightly. The three fifteen-minute pieces, “Tales of Rumi,” “Canto” and “M” all are pondering, spiritual and have a lightly extemporary feel to them. The mystical Eastern influence that was part and parcel of his jazz during his earlier heyday explicitly emerge over these extended ruminations, but even more so on “Nachiketa’s Lament,” led by Lloyd’s Tibetan oboe. Even the shorter tracks such as “How Can I Tell You” and “Durga Durga” draw you in on the pretty melodies alone and the vivid way Lloyd is able to effortlessly present them. Hart and Jormin are steadfast in the manner they ground these free-flowing pieces and Hart’s sublime Elvin Jones polyrhythms supporting “M” is a spot where one could point out to justify why he’s one of the best living jazz drummers.

Looking back from the present, the 90s quartet recordings could be considered “mid-period” Lloyd since he’s made so many records since then, with completely different personnel. But revitalization of his career after some time off didn’t just continue his legacy, it built even further upon it. We are still reaping the benefits today of the time off Charles Lloyd took for most of the 70s and 80s.

Quartets is set for release on April 23, by ECM Records.

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