Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri: Athens Concert (ECM 2205/06)

Athens Concert

Charles Lloyd
Maria Farantouri
Athens Concert

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, flute, tárogató
Maria Farantouri voice
Jason Moran piano
Reuben Rogers double-bass
Eric Harland drums
Socratis Sinopoulos lyra
Takis Farazis piano
Recorded in concert June 2010 at Herod Atticus Odeon, Athens
Recording engineer: Nikos Espialidis
Assistant engineer: Kostas Kyriakidis
Equipment by Logothetis Music
Mixed by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Dorothy Darr

Where are we
that the wind won’t blow?

“The human voice can capture the heart more swiftly and directly than any other instrument,” writes Charles Lloyd in the liner notes for Athens Concert, an historic live event given the permanence it more than deserves through this landmark recording. Lloyd goes on to relate how, as a child growing up in Memphis, he would fall asleep to the sound of Billy Holiday’s voice from the radio under his pillow, and how years later that same magic revealed itself in contralto Maria Farantouri (Greece’s Edith Piaf, if you will), who he later befriended and who introduced him to the songs of Mikis Theodorakis after he’d invited her to sing one of his own. Farantouri’s heart is ancient, and her desire to introduce Lloyd to her culture is manifest in the depth of his playing. She characterizes the tenor master as “a shaman of jazz who dominates the stage with the power of the mystic and the innocence of a child. The sound of his music can have the weight of a stone or the lightness of the air. With his improvisations he weaves an imaginary but so familiar world, a mirage constantly disintegrating and reforming.” We might say, then, that Lloyd is a singer, channeling his breath through a weathered metallic throat and bidding the very stars to dance. The bridging of these two worlds spawns a third, one where voices of time sing like parents to a child.

And what is “Kratissa ti zoi mou” (I Kept Hold of My Life), which opens the program, if not a voice churning in the tide of darkness from which we all are born? George Seferis’s words (from the poem, “Epiphany, 1937”) blossom from an unmistakable tenor branch, smooth yet weighted as if by the buckshot of self-awareness and sliding like honey down an enviable backdrop: Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Curtains part to reveal Farantouri’s husky swirls. Moran elicits sweet noise, mixing Ketil Bjørnstad-like textures with idiosyncratic spectral twists. An emblematic introduction into this forested sound-world, it is the concert’s Rosetta Stone. Lloyd’s classic “Dream Weaver” continues in the same flowing vein, his remarkably sunlit reed gathering enough thread to make even the most sedentary marionette nod in a groovy and somehow freer turn. Harland is also notable here, buoying a rich solo from Moran, who maintains epic contrast between the left and right hands throughout. Lloyd brings a classic edge to the denouement, further picked up by Rogers with intimacy. Our bandleader continues to regale us with his storytelling in “Blow Wind.” The original song finds Farantouri channeling Sheila Jordan, the lyrical star to an instrumental sky. Her voice indeed blows off into the distance, leaving Lloyd to shape those tendrils of dust left in her wake before she returns to stir them anew. Lloyd also pens “Prayer,” which features still more wonders from Moran. Farantouri’s full-throated, wordless song emerges from the bass, reedy like the muse that calls to her. A click away finds Lloyd setting words by politicist Agathi Dimitrouka in “Requiem.” A surprisingly buttery song that finds groove in the tragic, in it Farantouri’s tenderness clears the way for Moran’s more diffuse considerations, as microscopic as pollen and just as fragrant. The music of ECM mainstay Eleni Karaindrou also makes an appearance with “Taxidi sta Kythera” (Voyage to Cythera), which against a low and sultry swing allows gorgeous exchanges between the two bill headers, their voices filling the same crucible with variations of the same alloy.

LM 1

Pianist Takis Farazis joins for the performance’s remainder: the three-part Greek Suite, which he also arranged. Part I is the most ancient, shifting the sands with “Hymnos stin Ayia Triada,” an early Byzantine hymn to the Holy Trinity. Interweaving Lloyd’s flute and Farantouri’s flutedness, its song is its vow. “Epano sto xero homa” (In the Dry Soil) and “Messa Stous paradissious kipous” (In the Pradise Gardens) come from The Sun and Time by Theodorakis and as such unearth the greatest strengths of Farantouri’s gifts. Yet it is only when the strains of the lyra, played by Karaindrou regular Socratis Sinopoulos, touch the sky in Part II that the clouds weep rain. Amid its assortment of traditional tunes, “Thalassaki Mou” (My Little Sea) stands out to me. Although quite different from the version I grew up on the timeless Songs of the Earth by The Pennywhistlers, it nevertheless brings its own enchantment and stirs the musicians to invigorating levels. Part III boasts tunes from the Epirus region. Among the more moving are “Epirotiko Meroloi,” a lament of war and death told from a mother’s point of view, so well evoked by Lloyd’s uncanny intro and by the jangling folkways that ensue, and the intuitive digressions of lovesick souls in “Mori kontoula lemonia” (Little Lemon Tree). Harland grabs his fair share of the spotlight in “Alismono kae haeromae” (I Forget and I Am Glad), as does Sinopoulos in “Tou hel’ to kastron” (The Castle of the Sun), a traditional song from the Black Sea that is the band at its most attuned.

The encore also comes from a mother’s lips, as love pours through “Yanni Mou” (My Yanni) with more permanence than the bravery it mourns. The stichomythia between Farantouri and Lloyd discloses an oceanic world where the rhythms of fins and tails are the only music that remains. And if its mournful cast seems a somber note on which to end, it is only because the invigorations leading up to it linger like a childhood that refuses to let go. Such is the power of this music: it is memory incarnate.

(To hear samples of Athens Concert, click here or watch the video below.)

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2 thoughts on “Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri: Athens Concert (ECM 2205/06)

  1. Manfred Eicher is the best thing that ever happened to Charles Lloyd.

    Beginning with Fish Out of Water (not quite) in 1989 up until and including Athens Concert Charles has put together an astonishing string of first rate recordings.

    His current quartet featuring Jason Moran has him making music at a very high level indeed.

    Word is the next release will be duets with Charles and Jason.

    I sure hope so.

    1. I couldn’t agree more about the Eicher/Lloyd connection, which has produced some of the most introspective jazz of the past couple of decades. You are correct about Lloyd’s next project with Moran. The album will be called Hagar’s Song. Should be phenomenal. Also due out is an Old & New Masters set featuring Fish Out of Water, Notes From Big Sur, The Call, All My Relations, and Canto. As if that weren’t enough, Lloyd & Co. will perform the Athens Concert program in full at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC on March 15, his 75th birthday. I plan on being there.

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