Born out of the trauma of 9/11, Charles Lloyd’s new two-disc ECM recording, Lift Every Voice
, is a remedy for the sabre rattling so coolly analyzed on the news each night. But it also has a life separate from recent tragedy: It’s music of heart-wrenching beauty, engaging and interesting jazz, with links to the past and suggestions for the future.
Recorded in two sessions in January and February 2002, Lift Every Voice
is a logical follow-up to the rest of Lloyd’s ECM catalog, most recently The Water Is Wide
and Hyperion With Higgins
. Like its precedents, it is provocative collection of searching originals, unusual covers, spirituals, popular tunes and protest songs. Also like those earlier discs, it is warm and comforting, not pandering beauty but beauty full of meaning and mood. Intense, relaxed, lyrical, loose, it sometimes calls to mind the ballads and proto-free work of Coltrane.Lift Every Voice
also resembles Lloyd’s earlier ECM work in its personnel. Guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Larry Grenadier, bassist Marc Johnson (the two pair up on only one track out of 18) and drummer Billy Hart have all recorded with Lloyd, their own bands, and a fair sampling of jazz’ finest: Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Brad Mehldau, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, etc. Hart sensitively rises to the daunting task of following the late Billy Higgins in Lloyd’s line-up; Higgins died in May 2002.
Pianist Geri Allen is the one newcomer to Lloyd’s band, and her a addition is exciting. She’s steeped in traditions from across jazz and around the world, and she pulls from them all with confidence and style. On much of the album she rumbles and pulses like some barely buried force of nature. The opening track, "Hymn To The Mother," is an apt example. While Allen broods, Abercrombie winds his way through some vaguely Middle Eastern lines. Johnson contributes his own evocative effects, and Hart’s drums create space and light. Lloyd doesn’t join the fray until five minutes into the number; when he does, it all adds up to sound similar to Miles’ In A Silent Way
sessions: It seethes and swells but never pops.
The same can be said of many of the other 17 tracks, especially the Lloyd originals. "East Virginia, West Memphis" starts with the gritty sound Abercrombie is known for; Hart’s cymbals shimmer; the bassist - Johnson again - staggers precariously; and Lloyd strides over the nimbus like a bright, fiery vision. "Beyond Darkness" - in which Lloyd picks up the flute - is dusky and slightly mysterious. "Nocturne" is oceanic, with Hart crashing like a distant storm, and Allen rippling in the background.
Peace and personal strength also prevail in the covers. "You Are So Beautiful," Billy Preston’s schmaltzy love croon, remains tender but has class and dignity. "Amazing Grace" lilts like a country dance. Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On" is given a beautiful reading - quiet, gentle, powerfully sane. Lloyd adds runs and trills to the laid-back head, deftly fitting in the ornamentation. The layers and textures the quintet achieve sets apart from the smooth and ordinary.
The real jaw-dropper is "Go Down Moses." Lloyd starts off as serious as death, while the rhythm section boils and swells and finally, at last, gets to burst its banks. The floodwaters quickly recede, Johnson grabs the groove, Hart and Allen dig in, and Lloyd enters deeply swinging. Both Allen and Abercrombie have outstanding solos on this track.
There are two beauties by Silvio Rodriguez, "Te Amaré" and "Rabo de Nube," which aren’t dolled up with the typical cliches of Latin music, but rather spotlight lovely melodies. Allen really opens up and shows her stuff on the former, with a Ahmad Jamal-like solo that circles the globe in a minute. There’s also some Ellingtonia: the Duke’s "I’m Afraid" Billy Strayhorn’s lonely "Blood Count."
Other stand-out tracks include "Hafez, Shattered Heart." Lloyd solos with distinctly Middle Eastern-sounding modes, squeezing out cries of sorrow and passion as well as expressions of quiet wonder. On "Wayfaring Stranger," he eloquently gives the sense of the confusion that comes with deep sorrow. "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which became known as the Negro National Anthem in the first half of the 20th century, is a wonderful, uplifting hymn, with Allen playing the piano like it’s an organ, Hart skipping lightly in and Lloyd swinging in with the melody.
When I was younger, I used to fantasize about how art could save the world. Over the years, I’ve lost confidence in that idea, but listening to Charles Lloyd’s Lift Every Voice
revives my hope.