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Top 10 Charles Lloyd tracks

When life gives you lemons, make lemondade, they say. The lemon in this case was the snowstorm that led to cancelling Charles Lloyd and his quartet’s master class for Wesleyan students, whom I had taught 3 of his tunes and gotten pretty psyched for the event (fortunately, tonight’s concert is still occurring as scheduled). So instead of moping, I decided to come up with a Lloyd-based Top 10 list (though that had to wait until this morning, as I spent all day shoveling – argh!), which in turn gave me the excuse to spend a morning listening to his fabulous tenor playing (plus other winds), composing and bandleading to revisit some of my favorite Lloyd moments through the years. Without any further ado . . .

1. “Brazil” (with Chico Hamilton Quintet), 1961

This track was issued on the compilation Who’s Who In the Swinging Sixties, which I somehow inherited on LP (I don’t remember from whom) also featuring Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and others. This ominous version of “Brazil” features primary soloist Lloyd (Hamilton’s musical director at the time) on alto and he blows fiercely throughout.

2. “Sweet Georgia Bright” (with Cannonball Adderley Sextet), 1964

This is my personal favorite track among Lloyd’s work with Cannonball and also happens to be one of Lloyd’s best-loved original tunes (probably second only to “Forest Flower”). Along with Nat Adderley and the powerhouse rhythm section of Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, this up-tempo performance epitomizes Adderley’s swinging hard bop approach. And, for good measure, Lloyd’s ‘Trane-esque solo burns.  

3. “Third Floor Richard,” 1965

This track feature’s Lloyd’s wonderful flute playing and a great mix of his bop, modern and gutbucket blues influences. This is helped significantly by Ron Carter and Tony Williams, anchoring the rhythm section. Rounding out the quartet is Lloyd’s fellow Hamilton alumnus Gabor Szabo on guitar, whose playing here is appealing if seemingly a bit anachronistic given the company.

4. “Forest Flower,” 1966

Of course I couldn’t leave off this track, Lloyd’s best-loved recording. Nor would I want to, as this is the one that first blew my mind and made me a fan of Lloyd’s music. Recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival, this is our first taste (on this list) of the classic quartet line-up with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette (in this case with Cecil McBee), and this tune, which has become a modern jazz standard, is gorgeous and wonderfully colorful. The group’s rhythmic flexibility in interpreting it, meanwhile, makes it a whole other beast altogether.

5. “Little Wahid’s Day,” 1966

Recorded in Norway a month after the above-cited recording, this gentle jazz waltz is another flute feature and a great vehicle for the elasticity that was one of this quartet’s calling cards. The music is at times lyrical and at times driving, and everybody plays beautifully.

6. “Lonesome Child: Song/Dance,” 1967

With Ron McClure now holding down the bass chair, this quartet just kept getting more and more intense. This song eventually breaks down into a very moody and ethereal vibe, but not before an extended collective improvisation that features passionate simultaneous solos by Lloyd on tenor and Keith Jarrett on soprano saxophone (!) pushing each other to

7.  “Tribal Dance,” 1967

It’s debatable whether this track (recorded live in Estonia) specifically represents the apex of the quartet’s intensity. However, it’s certainly in the conversation. If you want to hear where the relentless spiritual intensity of the Coltrane Quartet meets the rhythmic ingenuity of the 1960s Miles Quintet, this utterly ferocious performance is as good a choice as any.

8. “Lady Day,” 1983

Recorded live in Denmark, this recording documents a brief return to the public eye for Lloyd, inspired by hooking up with the brilliant French pianist Michel Petrucciani. Their work together offered some of Michel’s best recorded playing as well as showing that Lloyd’s period of reclusiveness had not sapped him of any of his musical skill or vibrancy. This whole album is excellent, but I picked this beautiful performance in part to make sure there was a full-on ballad somewhere on the list.

9. “God Give Me Strength,” 1998

Does it make me a bad person to document Lloyd’s more recent work a) without representing Bobo Stenson (we love you Bobo!) and b) with a song by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello? So be it, I suppose, because Lloyd injects remarkable gravitas into this pop tune, aided by John Abercrombie, Dave Holland and most significantly Billy Higgins, who would in the ensuing few years become debatably Lloyd’s most significant latter-day collaborator.

10. Lift Every Voice and Sing, 2010

Because Lloyd is still very much a thriving musical presence, it seemed necessary to represent his current ensemble (Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland) even though I suppose I could have easily populated this whole list without leaving the 1960s. The two albums recorded (to date) with this quartet are both excellent, and I chose this track for the way it mixes deep soulfulness with unwavering presence and boundary-pushing.

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