Jazz Icon Charles Lloyd Leads Lucinda Williams into the Marvels Beyond

A milestone encounter between a major singer/songwriter and a great jazz band

Music Features Lucinda Williams
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Jazz Icon Charles Lloyd Leads Lucinda Williams into the Marvels Beyond

The 1960s were a time of upheaval in all corners of American culture, not the least in music. Lyricists such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Curtis Mayfield and Lou Reed were revolutionizing songwriting by introducing new subject matter and literary techniques. Instrumentalists such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans and Charles Lloyd were upending all previous notions of harmony and rhythm.

Looking back, it seems strange that these two areas of innovation never merged. Occasionally a jazz soloist would sit in with bands such as Steely Dan and Grateful Dead, and jazz bands would sometimes cover the songs of Dylan and Simon. But you never had a major lyricist recording and touring with a true jazz band on an equal basis.

Joni Mitchell  did make a pair of studio records (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus) with Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius, and Sting made three (The Dream of the Blue Turtles, …Nothing like the Sun and The Soul Cages) with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland. But the albums were credited to Mitchell and Sting alone—and rightly so, for the jazz musicians were clearly sidemen and not full partners.

That’s what makes the new album, Vanished Garden, such a milestone. Not only is it credited to “Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams,” but the music within represents a true collaboration between the jazz musicians and the singer/songwriter. You can hear the saxophonist and his musicians respond to Williams’ words and melodies, and you can hear the vocalist react to the ever-shifting harmonies and rhythms beneath her. The collaboration is not compartmentalized into the jazz musicians cutting loose on the solos and the Americana musicians stepping forward in the vocal sections; it’s integrated from start to finish.

Williams sings three of her older songs, a new original and Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.” The Marvels add five instrumentals, and the result is one of the year’s best recordings, a long-delayed fulfillment of the wish to pair an important Americana songwriter with a working jazz band. This is important, because it brings two currents of innovation into the same river, to prove that challenging lyrics can be bolstered, not obscured, by challenging music—and vice versa.

“I feel there’s no precedent for this new album,” Lloyd declares. “People can say whatever they want, but dogs bark and the caravan moves on. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. The ‘60s were a period of cross-pollination, but the gatekeepers weren’t interested in it. Like minds want to share, but sometimes they’re not allowed to. Sometimes it’s the old bugaboo of America, racism. Sometimes it’s just bad timing.”

It could have happened earlier. In the late ‘60s, Dylan had asked Lloyd if his quartet would like to play on the songs that became John Wesley Harding. The talks didn’t get very far, for the challenges were imposing and Columbia Records was resistant. But fans of both progressive rock and avant-garde jazz can only dream of what it might have sounded like to have Lloyd’s tenor sax blowing on “All Along the Watchtower,” Keith Jarrett’s piano piling up chords underneath “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and drummer Jack DeJohnette rumbling through “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”

“Dylan was my friend in New York,” Lloyd says, “and I thought he brought something very interesting to the scene with his insights. He invited me to record with him, but the timing never worked out. When I played at Shelley’s Manhole in L.A., the Byrds were playing in the back alley. I thought they were very interesting, and we wanted to record something together. Billy James at Columbia took it upstairs and they said no. When I was in London, Jimi Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time told me that Jimi wanted to record with me when I got back to New York, but by the time I got there, time had run out. The Grateful Dead were quite moved by what we were doing, but that didn’t happen either.”

The stumbling blocks were not just music-industry opposition. Adding a singer to a band is not the same as a trumpeter or conga player, because you’re adding more than just a new sound; you’re adding a whole new artistic element: words. Just to make the words heard require the musicians to pull back and step forward at just the right times. If the words are strong, they demand as much attention as the music—and this presents a challenge not only for the listener asked to keep track of both at the same time but also to the singer or soloist asked to cede some of the spotlight. And if the words are tethered to repeating rhythmic and melodic sections, that presents a challenge to jazz musicians who prefer more flexible forms.

It happened this time due largely to Bill Frisell, a guitarist firmly rooted in the jazz world (where he has worked with the likes of Ron Carter, Joe Lovano and Paul Motian) but also a musician who has crossed genre boundaries to work with Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones. Frisell’s frequent sidekick is steel guitarist Greg Leisz, best known for his work with such Americana artists as Dave Alvin, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.

“I was playing with Charles in Montreal,” Frisell remembers, “and he was talking about growing up in Memphis with the sound of a slide guitar.” Lloyd had backed up Howlin’ Wolf, who used a slide guitarist, and had befriended steel guitarist Al Vescovo.

“When I played in West Memphis as a teenager,” Lloyd recalls, “the group that went on before us was the Snearly Ranch Boys, a white country band. Al was their steel guitarist, but he liked Duke Ellington and ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’ I thought that was strange, so I talked to him and we became friends. Al and I spent so much time together, that people thought something funny was going on.

“He asked me if I knew any steel guitarists,” Frisell continues, “and I mentioned Greg. ‘Greg is like my brother,’ I told him. I was doing a gig at UCLA with Charles, and without a rehearsal, Greg walked on and played with us. That was the beginning of the Marvels.”

Lloyd had created the Marvels so he and his regular rhythm section (drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers) could play with Frisell and Leisz. That line-up’s first album, 2016’s I Long To See You (featuring vocals by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones), was released the same year as the third collaboration between Frisell, Leisz and Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20. It was almost inevitable that Lloyd and Williams would meet via Frisell and Leisz.

Frisell had already played on two of Williams’s albums (West and Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone), but Leisz had been playing with her even longer than that. So when Williams came to see her two friends in their new band, she met Lloyd and immediately bonded with him. He came to her gig, and she asked him to sit in. “If I sit in with you,” Lloyd replied, “you have to sit in with me at one of my shows.”

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“She was a poet not unlike Dylan,” Lloyd says of that first encounter. “I had heard her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album. Her father was a poet; she was from Lake Charles, and I was from Memphis, so that Southern crossroads thing was happening. It reminded me of the old days when I played with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm and Dylan was a neighbor. It wasn’t put together by the organizers; it was musicians gravitating to one another.”

“Sometimes you sit in with somebody,” adds Frisell, “and you feel like what you’re playing is having no impact because they’re not listening. But the first time I played with Lucinda, I immediately felt there was an emotional back and forth, I’d hear something she sang and I’d respond to it; she’d hear that and respond to me. That has never stopped. Even when she’s singing the same song, she doesn’t do it by rote; it’s like her nerves are exposed. That’s the way it is with Charles too.”

Though she rarely displayed it in public, Williams had a secret love for jazz that paralleled Lloyd’s love for Americana. “When I was growing up,” she says, “my dad listened to Hank Williams, but he also listened to Coltrane, Miles, Chet Baker and Dinah Washington. As an adult, I listened to Coltrane’s Ballads, Joao Gilberto, Latin music and all that. With my band, we recorded this primal, slowed-down, scary version of a Frank Sinatra song, ‘The Summer Wind,’ for that TV show Ozark. Afterward I said, ‘I want to do a whole album of this stuff.’”

The first recorded collaboration between Williams and Lloyd was a 2017 single, a live version of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Maybe Lloyd never got a chance to record with Dylan, but here was a chance to record one of the latter’s best protest songs with one of Dylan’s most obvious heirs. Lloyd had already recorded an instrumental version with the Marvels on their debut album.

Taken from a show at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre on November 28, 2016, the single’s arrangement begins with a quiet rumbling in the rhythm section before Williams addresses defense contractors and war profiteers with ascending blues phrases: “Come you masters of war, you that build all the guns, you that build the death planes, you that build all the bombs, you that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks, I just want you to know I can see through your masks.”

Lloyd’s tenor saxophone starts answering each fire-and-brimstone line with a moan of affirmation, as if he were in the congregation of a Southern African-American church responding to a preacher. Unlike the Dylan version where the acoustic guitar reinforces the punchy regularity of the vocal, this version has the instruments responding to the vocal in a variety of ways, changing the harmony and phrasing from stanza to stanza, even line to line, as if the protest were arising not from one individual but from a community with many moving parts and multiple perspectives.

“I’d heard Lucinda do ‘Masters of War’ years and years ago,” says Frisell. “I’d been playing it for years, and Charles wanted to play it. So it was an easy place for us to come together. And unfortunately, it’s a song that never stops being relevant. The melody is really close to those old murder ballads, so just the melody itself is an incredible backbone that gives you the strength to play the music. And even if they’re not being sung, you hear echoes of the words, and that adds a huge weight to what you’re playing. It gives you a lot of ammo.”

“It blew my mind that Charles did that song,” says Williams, “because I’ve been singing ‘Masters of War’ since I was 16. I thought we’d just be doing jazz, but this guy is totally off the charts; he can do anything. You can hear that on his albums. Bill’s the same way. He comes out of that jazz world, and he added that dimension on my albums, but he can also sound like Jimi Hendrix. Bill was sort of a halfway house for me on the way to Charles.”

“When I get in there with my horn,” adds Lloyd, “I want to release her from all her troubles. I’m trying to put the meaning of the words and the feeling of the music together. When you’re in the zone, you just let it rip and it’s going to come through. When she inspires us, we inspire her. Don Was [the president of Blue Note Records and co-producer of Vanished Gardens] told me that Dylan ran up to his office and asked for a copy of our version of ‘Masters of War.’”

The single’s success convinced everyone involved that they needed to make a whole album. The Hollywood sessions in April and September last year had the business-like efficiency of a jazz venture rather than the more leisurely pacing of a pop project. There was little discussion, rehearsal or arranging; the musicians would start playing and Williams would start singing.

“The jazz world doesn’t have the same kind of budgets we have in the rock world,” Williams points out. “They’re used to going in and hammering out an album in three days. I didn’t have to tell them what to do. We just ran through it a couple of times, and that was it. You don’t have to labor over things with these guys, because they’re so knowledgeable and so flexible. I mentioned to Charles that I wasn’t happy with all of my vocals, and I wanted to recut some of them. He said, ‘Oh, that’s a luxury,’ as if it were a rock indulgence. At the end of the day, I deferred to Don Was, who I love. It was okay in that world.”

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