Charles Lloyd & the Marvels Expands its Voice: Jazz Group of the Year


The Marvels, from left: Bill Frisell, Eric Harland, Charles Lloyd, Reuben Rogers and Greg Leisz.

(Photo: D. Darr)

Leading a secluded life in the expansive hill country above Montecito, California, Charles Lloyd has plenty of time and space for contemplation.

And when he gathers his thoughts, Lloyd — a veteran of the counterculture wars who famously tuned in, turned on and dropped out — will sometimes veer from the light.

“I’m paranoid,” the saxophonist, flutist and composer said in a late-May Zoom call from his home, “because I was around in the ’60s and wanted to change the world with the beautiful stuff of music, and I haven’t done that.”

But, Lloyd said he is also an “obstinate” sort. A self-described dreamer, he won’t quite give up on the power of music to heal or its ability to transport him back to moments in his life when he has put that power to work. And he has found no better vehicle for such trips than his DownBeat Critics Poll-topping Jazz Group of the Year: Charles Lloyd & the Marvels.

The Marvels, in fact, were hatched out of a desire to recapture a moment of spiritual oneness when, as a young man of color, Lloyd played with Al Vescovo, a white pedal steel guitarist, and, in doing so, bridged the racial divide in his hometown of Memphis. Decades later, on Nov. 15, 2013, he invited pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz to join him and his working group — electric guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland — for a trial-by-fire audition during a concert at Royce Hall at UCLA. The resulting interaction, he said, was a marvel, and the quintet, name and all, was born.

“I was so enthralled,” he recalled. “Al Vescovo had come back to me.”

Since then, the Marvels have provided many opportunities for Lloyd to commune with old buddies. He does so with Ornette Coleman on “Peace” and “Ramblin’,” two cantering Coleman covers off the Marvels’ latest album, Tone Poem (Blue Note, 2021). Coleman, he said, was a fellow traveler in 1950s Los Angeles, sharing with him all manner of sustenance, musical and otherwise, before decamping for New York at the end of the decade. Lloyd followed a year later.

“I just wanted to say hello to him,” Lloyd said in explaining why he played the Coleman tunes.

Lloyd’s musical chats with Thelonious Monk are marked with some frequency, too. They are also touched by melancholy, based on a rendering of “Monk’s Mood” that appears on the Marvels’ 2018 album Vanished Gardens (Blue Note) and on a slightly evolved version included on Tone Poem.

Wistfully, Lloyd recalled that, as a relative novice on the New York scene, he once naively ignored Monk’s offer to join his group because it came through a third party. He regrets that decision to this day.

“I speak to Monk all the time,” he said.

That Lloyd speaks to old colleagues through music does not mean that the music dwells in the past. To the contrary. Lloyd’s interpretations of any given tune are timeless marvels of rolling invention that subtly shift from moment to moment, night to night and, ultimately, year to year until the tune’s possibilities seem spent and it is temporarily removed from rotation, according to Rogers, who has been a fixture in Lloyd’s ensembles for 18 years.

“We’ll put a song away for four or five years and bring it back,” he explained. “It’s fresh again. Then we’re able to expand on it. That’s been his thing all his life.”

Beyond the practice of rotating tunes, the addition of Frisell and, on the guitarist’s recommendation, Leisz (the two had a long working relationship that predated their work with Lloyd) has conspicuously altered the atmospherics, yielding the kind of billowing sonic bed on which Lloyd’s otherworldly expansions sit so naturally.

In fact, it’s remarkable he has only assembled the unit in the past decade.

“It feels like we’ve been playing together for a couple of lifetimes,” Frisell said.

In part, Frisell’s feeling of familiarity reflects the openness of thinking and breadth of background he and Leisz have shared with Lloyd from that first concert at UCLA. Like Lloyd, who played with everyone from the Beach Boys to the Grateful Dead, Frisell and Leisz both had substantial experience playing with performers mainly known for their work outside the jazz world.

“Greg is like a brother to me,” Frisell said. “We had been playing since the late ’90s. We never had to figure out what to do.”

The Marvels’ first two albums found them collaborating with vocalists who either skirt the jazz world (Norah Jones, who laid down one track on their Blue Note debut, 2016’s I Long To See You) or operate largely in another realm (country star Willie Nelson, who also did a track on that album, and roots mainstay Lucinda Williams, who laid down multiple tracks on Vanished Gardens). While Tone Poem does not feature vocalists per se, Lloyd sees himself as one, though he decided early on that he could best give voice to his ideas through an external instrument.

“I’m a singer, and I have a saxophone now,” he said.

Lloyd made it clear that all his bandmates, and by extension their collective voice, must exhibit that singing quality. And he was confident they would do just that as he prepared to leave on a summer tour of North America and Europe that would include July dates with the Marvels in the U.K., Poland, Romania, Belgium and The Netherlands.

At the age of 84, Lloyd seems strong of mind and heart, and he has used the pandemic time for deeper contemplation. But the problems outside the confines of his house amid the hills haunt him, and so he will venture forth, seeking insight into why, despite the example of artists like himself, so many people still choose darkness over, as he has written, “the light of Peace ahead.”

“I’m raring to go out and play,” he said, “because I’ll find something that will explain the inexplicable.” DB

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