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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The album’s opening instrumental, “Defiant,” begins as a lyrical, unaccompanied duet between Lloyd and Frisell before Leisz, Rogers and Harland join in. Despite its title, Lloyd’s composition is calmly meditative, evoking defiance as flinty determination rather than explosive anger; the saxophone, guitar and steel guitar solos extend the patient melody around and through all obstacles.

Next up is Williams’ “Dust,” an adaptation of her father’s poem into a song. Miller Williams was a well-respected Southern poet who had a huge impact on his daughter’s approach to language. The trick in adapting a poem into song, she says, is pulling out several lines and treating them as a refrain or repeating chorus. You come up with one melody for that section and another melody for the other lines. For “Dust,” she identified the lines, “You couldn’t cry if you wanted to/ Even your thoughts are dust,” as the refrain that she could chant over and over again. While she did that, Lloyd dug into the tension until it erupted in a spiraling tenor-sax solo.

“One of my favorite sounds in the world was hearing my dad on the typewriter,” Williams says. “He taught creative writing; sometimes he’d have classes at the house when I was living there. He was very into the craft of writing, of working on the poem after you get the idea—to not just throw a lot of words out there, but to refine it. He always talked about the economics of writing, of using as few words as possible.”

Lloyd has also had a lot of experience with literary poets. After his ’60s days of fame, he fell prey to drugs, which he refers to as “tragic magic,” and retreated to the mountains of Big Sur to recuperate. He slowly returned to music by accompanying some of California’s finest poets— Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Diane diPrima, Bob Kaufman—improvising music behind their spoken recitations. On the new album, Lloyd dedicates an instrumental composition, “Blues for Langston and LaRue,” to two Harlem Renaissance figures: the poet Langston Hughes and the musical dramatist Evelyn La Rue Pittman.

As recently as 2008, Lloyd invited the current U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic to open Lloyd’s show at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Simic responded by reading four poems, and on the final one, “Two for Charles Lloyd,” the quartet came in quietly behind him, Lloyd murmuring in agreement on the tenor sax, pianist Jason Moran playing whole-note chords, each in a different, stranger voicing, Rogers dropping in strategic upright bass notes, and Harland adding rattling hand percussion. “Late night talk on a tenor,” the poet in the gray thatched hair and rimless glasses read, “with the dead and the shadows they cast.” Simic’s poem was subsequently reprinted in the liner notes for that year’s album, Rabo de Nube.

“Charles Simic was just another instrument in the band,” Lloyd recalls. “He comes from the day; he was around me in the Village when Thelonious Monk was at the Five Spot. He’s a deep lover of the music, so it wasn’t anything other than a natural sharing. He was finishing up, and we came up under him. The words mean different things to different people, but the music is direct. I’m blessed to have people who can make that journey with me.”

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That experience with poetry pays off on the new album. “Dust” is followed by the nine-minute instrumental title track, which begins with a jittery, stabbing guitar part from Frisell, reinforced by Harland but eventually countered by Lloyd’s reassuring tenor sax, deep and full, and Leisz’s sustaining steel lines. That’s followed by Williams’ 2003 song “Ventura,” whose wistful yearning to break out of the daily routine, is at first reflected by Frisell and Lloyd but then thrust by their inventions into a tremendous feeling of release. So it goes, back and forth between instrumentals and vocal numbers.

“That sound that we get is special,” insists Lloyd. “Why did I put Lucinda in the middle of that? Because of her poetry; she’s fearless and wild. People like her and Dylan aren’t just writing, ‘My baby left me last night.’ They’re writing about the human condition, their own notion of right living. I bet if you sat Bob Dylan down and asked him, he couldn’t tell you where it came from. It’s out there in the air, it’s available to anyone, but certain people can pull it out. Lucinda can do that, and I can tell that it hasn’t been easy. I don’t bother her about that.”

Not every jazz musician has the versatility to accompany a songwriter such as Dylan or Williams. They have to be comfortable with the hillbilly and rock’n’roll vocabulary that underlies so much of that writing; they have to know when to leave room for the vocals and when to push against the words. They can’t be snobbish about other kinds of music, as if pop genres were beneath them. Lloyd was well prepared for this encounter, and not just from years of playing with his jazz quartet on rock bills at the Fillmore West and the Fillmore East.

He had an extended entanglement with the Beach Boys, a collaboration that grew out of their shared interest in transcendental meditation. He toured with them for a short while and played on their 1971 album Surf’s Up; they sang on his 1972 album Waves. Years later, he recorded instrumental versions of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No” on his own albums.

“When I was still living in the Village,” Lloyd recalls, “the Beach Boys sought me out, but I didn’t know their work, to be honest. I thought they’d just put surfboards on Chuck Berry and that was it. But finally I listened to the records and realized that Brian Wilson was a genius with this beatific vision. Brian had these big ears; he could hear those beautiful harmonies that Clare Fisher had orchestrated for the Four Freshmen and mix them into Chuck Berry. ‘Pet Sounds’ was so beautiful it inspired the Beatles to stretch out some more.”

Frisell too had the necessary preparation. Though he began as a die-hard disciple of jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, Frisell’s curiosity got the best of him and he was soon collaborating with bluegrass musicians such as Jerry Douglas and Viktor Krauss and Americana guitarists such as Leisz and Ry Cooder. Frisell devoted an album to the songs of Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach, another to early-‘70s rock instrumentals and yet another to the compositions of John Lennon. So he was ready for Williams when he met her.

“When I’m in it,” Frisell reports, “the music of the Beatles and Beach Boys doesn’t feel any different than a jazz standard. The way I’m interacting with the other musicians, the way I’m processing the music, the way it feels on stage, feels the same whether it’s a Wes Montgomery song, ‘Stella by Starlight,’ a country and western song or a Beatles song. By the time I met Greg, I was realizing that a lot of music I was listening to was coming from Hank Williams and the Carter Family, the world that he’d been in. We’ve been playing together so long, we just play the song. There’s not much talk about arrangement.”

“Bill is one of the sweetest guys you’ll ever want to meet in your life,” says Williams. “His playing just adds this whole new dimension to what we’re doing, like he’s adding brush strokes of brilliant color to your painting. He’s so quiet, and then he starts playing, and he’s on the level of a Jimi Hendrix. He’s not your average rock guitar player, but neither is he stuck in that formal jazz way of playing. That’s the beauty of this whole band; none of them are stuck that way. Sometimes you invite classically trained musicians to sit on a blues song, and they say, ‘Wait a minute; we need to rehearse.’ These guys, you say, ‘Let’s play a blues,’ and they jump right in.

“On the last song of the last night of the sessions,” Williams continues, “everyone had gone home except for Charles, Bill and me. We had talked about doing Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Angel,’ and I was showing Bill the chords. Charles said, ‘What the hell, why don’t we go in and cut a take.’ And it turned out great, maybe because we were so tired. I love the melody of that song; I have to connect with the melody as much as the lyrics. It’s such a sad song. The word ‘angel’ always feels so good to sing.”

Williams tried to add a vocal to the new album’s jazz standard, “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” but they didn’t get an acceptable take, so the instrumental version is on the record. But she is determined to master the American Songbook repertoire.

“Charles loves one of my songs called, ‘A Place in My Heart,’” says Williams, “because it has a more traditional jazz melody. If you listen to my songs since the Blessed album, a lot of them have been influenced by standards; the melodies and phrasing reflect that. When you look at the path that Bob Dylan took, from Woody Guthrie to Bing Crosby, I’ve taken a similar route. It was just a natural progression, giving myself permission to not fill up every space with words. I saw Bob Dylan doing that when he put out Time Out of Mind just before I put out Essence. That influenced me a lot.”

Williams is joining Lloyd and the Marvels whenever her schedule permits, but she hasn’t abandoned her regular band. Recently they’ve been crisscrossing the continent as part of the L/S/D Tour, the acronym standing for Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. When the tour came to Baltimore’s Pier Six Pavilion in mid-June, Williams first appeared during Earle’s set sporting shaggy blonde hair and bangs and a black blouse with the sleeves rolled up.

She sang a duet with Earle on his song “You’re Still Standing There,” and he returned the favor during her set by adding a harmonica solo to “Drunken Angel” and a guitar part to “Joy.” At the end of the night, Williams and Earle reappeared to sing on Yoakam’s encore version of Joe & Rose Lee Maphis’s 1953 country single, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music).”

In her own set, joined by her regular band of guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton, Williams revived tunes from all phases of her career, using the country-folk-rock push that has been her signature sound for decades. It provided a revealing contrast to her sound with the Marvels, who are as likely to tug her sideways as to push her forward. The old approach has been proven effective, but the jazzier arrangements are unprecedented and thus more surprising.

“With her band,” comments Lloyd, “they’re leaning forwards, but Eric and Reuben are leaning back; they have this beautiful synchronicity. Eric has that smile in his playing that Billy Higgins had,” Lloyd says of his late friend and former drummer. “When I hired Eric, he couldn’t play what he can play now, but I could hear the potential. He has that Baptist joyfulness in him. I like that organic feeling. I like it loose but I also like it brilliant; that’s a beautiful thing. Jason has that.”

“I’m still singing the same way,” claims Williams; “the songs are the same. I don’t want to compare Charles’s guys with my guys, because I love them all. His guys swing more; they’re more versed in jazz and soul. Those guys are laid back, but they know when to push. We’re not doing rock songs like ‘Change the Lock,’ but we did ‘Joy’ and it worked really well. Stuart Mathis has been filling in when Bill or Greg can’t make the gig, so I have one of my guys some nights.”

Frisell is missing some dates to keep his own career going. He has a new album, Music Is, his first unaccompanied solo album in 18 years. Featuring 15 original compositions, it reflects the wide range of Frisell’s music—from elegant, pastoral melodies to roaring guitar noise, from sci-fi experimentation to the counterpointed harmonies made possible by sampling and looping. It’s one of the year’s most pleasurable jazz records.

“Playing solo is such a different frame of mind,” says Frisell. “Even if you’re just with one other person, you’re constantly getting feedback from another person. It’s a conversation, and it’s much easier for me to have a conversation than to do public speaking. To make it work, you have to start thinking of the audience as another musician—or even the silence that follows when you stop playing. When I got comfortable with letting the air and the space be there; you play with it, you can push against it or let it hang there. The solo format clarifies what you’re doing, because there’s no one else there; it gives you a chance to check your own self out. This is me.”

Meanwhile, Lloyd will be the artist-in-residence at this year’s Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. He will perform with three different bands: Sangam, a trio featuring Harland and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain; the New Quartet, a foursome featuring Moran, Harland and Rogers; and Charles Lloyd & Friends, a version of the Marvels featuring Williams, Mathis, Moran, Rogers, Harland and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

It’s not big news that Lloyd and Frisell continue to create brilliant jazz music, nor that Williams does the same in Americana. What is big news is how the three performers have come together to invent something unparalleled, a merger of two paths of musical innovation into one—call it “Americana-jazz-poetry.” Most music, whether vocal or instrumental, works by keeping the background steady and the foreground unpredictable. Here’s a music that tries to keep both the singer and the accompaniment unguessable. That might give some listeners vertigo, but dizziness is often the symptom or romantic love, spiritual inspiration or intellectual transcendence.

“It’s a different thing,” Williams agrees, “but once you adjust to it, it starts to come naturally. Bill and I once recorded a Mississippi Fred McDowell song with some reggae guys, and it worked because I wasn’t going to be the white girl trying to sound Jamaican. I was going to sound like myself and have a conversation with those guys. It’s the same with Charles; I’m not going to be the rock girl trying to be a jazz singer; I’m going to be myself.”

“It was kind of extraordinary the way the band didn’t change when Lucinda joined,” Frisell adds. “We didn’t hold back. Whoever’s there, I’m going to play the same language I’ve developed within the band. Because she carries the melody, it frees Charles and me to push against it and go outside it. You’re listening not just to the words, but also the musical stuff, the ups and downs, but also the story going on with the words. It’s not just the notes she’s singing, not just how loud or soft she’s singing; there’s also the meaning of the words.”

“It works because it’s Charles’s band,” Williams continues. “First of all, you have to let the lyrics be heard. The better drummers, like Eric, know how to work with singers. Some drummers just bash away, because that’s their thing. But I’m not going to scream over a drummer; I just won’t. The lyrics are very important to me, but they’re also important to Charles and Bill; they know how to wind around me, so the words are always heard.”

“Lucinda touched me,” Lloyd concludes, “and I responded at the same time. As a music maker, you have a lifetime of experience, and your whole preparation creates a response that comes through you. We have arrived at similar ideas though different life experiences. On her song ‘Unsuffer Me,’ for example, we weren’t trying to make her fit into our universe or make ourselves fit into hers. As jazz musicians, we respond to the now. It’s a wonderful place to live.”

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