Charles Lloyd: Voice In The Night (ECM 1674)

Voice In The Night

Charles Lloyd
Voice In The Night

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone
John Abercrombie guitar
Dave Holland double-bass
Billy Higgins drums
Recorded May 1998 at Avatar Studio, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

First loves never die. When it comes to jazz, Voice In The Night was mine. Not only was it the first proper jazz album I ever purchased, but it also introduced me to a tenor sound that had me at note one and has yet to let go. Memphis-born but California-spirited, Charles Lloyd has expanded the sweep of his instrument in incalculable ways by means of an unerring willingness to surmount every obstacle that stands in his way. After jumping the pond for a handful of (re)defining sessions, including the unmissable All My Relations and Canto, this fish out of water kept stateside, recording in New York’s Avatar Studios with a crew of new and old alike. By the time of this record, he and drummer Billy Higgins had had a history stretching back to the mid-1950s. Bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie were mixed recruits—Holland having shared a festival stage or two with Lloyd, Abercrombie fresh on the boat. Abercrombie had been especially astonished by Lloyd’s depth and phrasing, and the introduction of the former to the latter’s milieu was a masterstroke.

This album bears prime witness both to Lloyd’s songcraft and to the wonders it inspires in his band mates. His restless arpeggios are more than just that. Like emotional tics he can’t (and need never) shake, they constitute a grammar all their own, each a subtle unpacking. They flow throughout the title opener with such soul-to-soul intrepidity as to turn each gesture into a different shade of charcoal. With said charcoal this intensely laid-back quartet draws a bold landscape of shadows and dreams. Some ring more fancifully, such as a topflight rendition of the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach tune “God Give Me Strength,” given here a full and chromatic treatment that pushes Higgins into the foreground with the inevitability of April wind. Lines of the eponymous tune reverberate in the playing:

And I don’t have anything to share
That I won’t throw away into the air

If Lloyd is the voice in the night, Abercrombie brings out the stars, calling forth a fluid artistry in what just might be his best date since Timeless. His soft, midrange-heavy tone flows like rain down a window. Standout moments abound in “Requiem” and in “Homage,” the second a hip display of acrobatic proportions. With fingers flying and solos enchanting (the homage can only be to Coltrane), in addition to a bubbling drum solo at the fulcrum, there’s much to savor in repeated listening.

Other dreams, such as “Dorotea’s Studio,” read more impressionistically. Abercrombie’s extended solo here inspires the rhythm section to build the melodic frame into which Lloyd eases his way and dances amid a collection of artifacts. Carved wood, painted canvas, developing film: these vestiges of impulse come to life in the absence of their creators. This is an emblematic track for its unforgettable vamp and organic shifts in key, all working toward a flick of an ending, abrupt and sincere.

Lloyd is so known for his personal reflections, and in this regard “Island Blues Suite” represents a return to roots. This multifaceted track blends backyard jam aesthetics and weaves through them, by way of Abercrombie’s strings, a chain of uninhibited dances. Subtle soloing from Holland and a keening guitar are icing on the cake. Lloyd takes the deepest dip into his canon with a newly re-imagined “Forest Flower” (this one goes back to the 1967 live album of the same name). The bossa nova undercurrent sets Abercrombie on a fruitful improvisatory path, while Holland’s whispers reveal the set’s dynamic charge. These interactions smooth into a long play-out before Billy Strayhorn’s melodic strength blossoms in “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” in which Lloyd lays heavy tenderness over a Saharan pulse until earth and sky change places.

As a whole, the band maintains a steady river without the need for waterfalls. The fact that Voice is also a melodic tour de force for Lloyd in particular only sweetens the pot. His is a clarifying presence that brings lucidity to the current with so much vision, it’s almost blinding. James Farber’s rounded engineering gives us the clearest sense possible of the importance of space in the tenorist’s songcraft. The result is lyrical music-making at its best. Classic to the bone.

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