Jazz Thoughts #002 – Charles and Bill

Charles Lloyd begins his latest album with a fascinating  eight minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War”. The veteran saxophonist has brought together a new line-up for the release on Blue Note records. The notable addition to the ranks is guitarist Bill Frisell, who also has a new album out, more of which later.  Lloyd has used the rhythm section of his New Quartet outfit, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harlan for this album but also regular Frisell collaborator, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz. The album opener comes across more like a Frisell album track than a typical Lloyd performance, being reminiscent of something from the guitarists late 90s albums.

By the second track we are back in familiar Lloyd post bop territory, with parallels to Charles’ work with Gábor Szabó in the Chico Hamilton band in the 1960s, and indeed the tune  “Of Course, Of Course,” originally appeared on Lloyd’s 1965 Columbia album of the same name with Szabó, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Another previously recorded track the traditional lullaby “La Llorona” is back into Frisell territory and then again album flips back to the Lloyd sound with another folk song, the dreamy “Shenandoah”. It’s only by the time we get to a masterful reading of the Lloyd classic “Sombrero Sam” that we get to the best example of the new sound emerging from this collaboration. Frisell opens with one his typical song deconstructions, and moves into the riff organically as the rhythm section takes him into new terrorties as Leisz offers an almost theremin like second lead to this mix until Charles enters on flute.

It’s back to traditional folk song form with a leisurely reading of 60s protest staple “All My Trials” which edges into into country territory, giving a hint of what is to come. Again the band manages to balance the two main players styles. A straight reading of “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream” features Willie Nelson on vocals and is a bit too safe for my liking. Although the bands very short reading of “Abide With Me” is beautifully played I am not sure how it fits in the overall mix, it is followed immediately with a straight reading of “You Are Too Beautiful” with Norah Jones guesting on vocals. I don’t know if it’s the extremely slow pacing but, other than a delicately fractured lead line from Lloyd, it all feels too chocolate box/coffee table jazz/country to me.

The album closes with a 16 minute meditation called “Barche Lamsel” which is the strongest item in the set and to my mind should have been more the direction the collaboration should have moved in. The delicate interplay between Lloyd, Frisell and Leisz is worth the price of admission with the guitar tones mixing beautifully with Charles breathy flute explorations. Around five minutes in Frisell starts an understated riff and the whole thing drifts off into modal reverence with a feel that wouldn’t be out of place in the Radio Gnome Invisible Territory.

A strong, if somewhat schizophrenic start, a strangely disappointing and radio friendly middle, and a masterful closer make “I Long To See You” a curates egg of a release, on balance the stronger tracks outweigh the more mainstream offerings.

At more or less the same time Frisell releases his latest solo album “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Two years on from the disappointing “Guitar In The Space Age” this is a themed set with all of the music being derived from Film and Television Music. Viola player Eyvind Kang, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Rudy Royston, and singer Petra Haden are the band for a release which is back to Frisell at his best.  It’s not his first “covers” album of course, there have been a number over the years from “Have A Little Faith” onwards. Petra Haden is in fine voice and the song choices ensure that the music does not drift into easy listening territory,  you can’t really go wrong with John Barry, as evidenced by her first appearance, with a great reading of “You Only Live Twice”.

Kang has always worked well with Frisell and their partnership here delivers some of their best collaborations, a jaunty reading of the theme from “Psycho” is a manic tumble of klezmer inflicted fun.

Following Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald, amongst many others, with a version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” is a pretty daunting endeavour but Petra copes admirably with a great performance backed by some understated playing and a beautiful arrangement from Bill which feels very Gallic in places, and calls to mind cold war thrillers.

A quick gallop through the theme from “Bonanza” is a bit of fun before we get into the serious business of Ennio Morricone  and a trilogy of tunes starting with a magnificent version of “Once Upon A Time In The West” which has been featured by everyone from Zorn to Springsteen over the years. This is Bill at his best, golden notes cascading over of a rich backing with Petra floating over the tune.   “As A Judgement” is another Morricone classic from the same film with Bill going all Tex-Mex and Kang providing ethereal notes before moving into the stately core of the tune. The trio is completed by “A Farewell To Cheyenne” which mixes Caribbean rhythms with 60s French Cinema elements to create a delightful piece of music.

A quick slip into Disney territory is perhaps the least satisfying point in the set but is soon redeemed with Bills own “Tales From The Far Side”, originally debuted on the 1996 Frisell album “Quartet”, a de-constructed “Moon River” and a mammoth reading of “The Godfather”.

Overall we have the best of Frisell on display here, consummate playing, a great tone, and great arrangements of classic tunes blending jazz and americana to create a very pleasurable listening experience.

Here’s the whole gig from the Lincoln Centre that launched the album and as the announcer says at the beginning, if you like it go and get the CD.


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