Upon the passing of Billy Higgins, who recorded some of his last work with Lloyd’s quintet, Lloyd felt that he had to continue playing, this time with a newly configured group consisting of Billy Hart on Drums, John Abercrombie on guitar, Larry Grenadier or Marc Johnson on bass, and Geri Allen on piano. That’s the group we hear on Lift Every Voice, which was recorded over two days in early 2002. As on his most recent ECM CD’s, Lloyd explores various aspects of the world’s music, alternating from Middle Eastern modes to traditional American spirituals, even though the musical personalities of his most recent quintets are quite different from that on The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins. For one thing, Lloyd includes for the first time American pop songs that would be identified by a wider audience, Marvin Gaye’s classic "What’s Going On?" and Billy Preston’s "You Are So Beautiful" (that is, unless you count Hoagy Carmichael’s "Georgia On My Mind" from The Water Is Wide).
The point of the entire 2-CD project, though, is to give wordless voice to the powerful emotions that the events of 9/11 unleashed. Always feeling the outsider and observing world events from the basis of deep sympathy and a beneficial will, hoping that music could be a means for healing, Lloyd, when one thinks about it, is the appropriate musician to give form to such curative intentions. One can never accuse him of insincerity or casual superficiality. Thus, Lift Every Voice actually is Lloyd’s expression of concern for humanity, deepened even more by disaster.
So, all of the tunes on Lift Every Voice are linked thematically to that event in his attempts to heal. Many of the songs are those that helped assuage Lloyd’s emotional upset after the scheduled but postponed night of his opening at the Blue Note: September 11.
That’s not to say that all of the tracks on the CD are equal in form, spirit or success. Lloyd is a master balladeer, and his performance on "Rabo de Nube," unhurried though it is, evokes a prayer-like solemnity and uplift. Surprisingly, Lloyd is just as successful on "You Are So Beautiful," and much of the credit goes to Geri Allen who lays down just the right chords over which Lloyd can improvise, as she does on the medium-tempo "Deep River."
Lloyd makes effective use of Abercrombie as well, as he did especially on Hyperion with Higgins. In fact, Abercrombie opens the first track, "Hymn to the Mother," with extended modal work that suggests an atmosphere of mystery and humility. Alternately, as on "Darkness on the Delta Suite" from Hyperion with Higgins, Abercrombie sets the mood of earthiness and blues-driven weariness on "East Virginia, West Memphis."
But then, "What’s Going On" is fairly straightforward, Abercrombie playing harmony to Lloyd’s entirely recognizable performance of the melody while Allen and Hart push the tune with anticipation-of-the-beat prodding and shuffle.
The most head-turning track on both CD’s is "Go Down Moses," Lloyd at first playing the opening notes mournfully as a powerful anthem while Johnson bows the bass for even more lugubrious effect. But that rhythmless incantation doesn’t last long. After the dramatic opening of the first chorus, Allen, Johnson and Hart set the rhythm for a slow minor-keyed development of a reverent interpretation that allows Lloyd to drop his cautiousness and deliver a rousing and memorable elegy. Throughout the tune, Allen borrows voicings from "All Blues" for dramatic effect.
Fortunately, Charles Lloyd’s music is evolving, even as he remains consistent, as he has throughout his entire life, with the backup of a new group of musicians who intuitively understand Lloyd’s aesthetic and moral sensibilities as thoroughly as did the members of his earlier group.