Charles Lloyd & the Marvels – Tone Poem
83-year-old saxophonist Charles Lloyd has actually had several careers as a musician. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, he grew up surrounded by blues, jazz, and gospel musicians, but left Memphis in 1956 to study classical music in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California with noted Bartók specialist Halsey Stevens. He spent his days at USC, but occupied his nights moonlighting with jazz luminaries such as Ornette Coleman, Billy Higgins, Scott LaFaro, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Eric Dolphy, and Bobby Hutcherson. And he became a member of Gerald Wilson’s big band – all while earning a degree at USC. Afterwards, he became the musical director for Chico Hamilton’s band, where his musical leanings started moving towards jazz fusion. In 1966, he formed a quartet that featured a 21-year-old Keith Jarrett on piano; their album Forest Flower had cross-cultural appeal, and Lloyd was named Downbeat’s Jazz Artist of the Year in 1967. His music appealed to jazz purists and hippies alike.
In the early seventies, Lloyd virtually dropped out of the jazz scene; he’d become a disciple of transcendental meditation, and he played regularly with the Beach Boys, both in the studio and as a member of their touring ensemble. He also appeared on several side projects with Beach Boys Mike Love and Al Jardine, and on albums from Roger McGuinn, and The Doors (Full Circle, post-Jim Morrison). After nearly a decade away from the genre, Lloyd returned to jazz, but was diagnosed with a nearly fatal condition that sidelined him for much of the eighties. Returning to music in 1988, he soon signed with ECM, recording a string of sixteen albums for the imprint with musicians as diverse as Brad Mehldau, John Abercrombie, Larry Grenadier, Billy Higgins, Geri Allen, and Jason Moran. In 2016 Lloyd signed with Blue Note Records. Tone Poem is his sixth album for the label.
Tone Poem also marks the third outing from Charles Lloyd and the Marvels. The album consists of six covers and three originals, and is the first record from the group that doesn’t have a vocalist on any of the tracks (previous Marvels albums featured vocals from Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, and Lucinda Williams). Alongside Lloyd on saxes and flute, jazz superstar Bill Frisell appears on guitar; Frisell became a fan of Lloyd’s when as a teenager he first saw Lloyd in concert. The Marvels are rounded out by pedal-steel guitar player Greg Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers, and longtime Lloyd drummer Eric Harland. The playing style of Charles Lloyd and The Marvels has been described as "Americana Jazz," because their tunes typically blend elements of jazz, blues, country, and Americana.
The album contains a diverse mix of covers and originals. It kicks off with a contemplative reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” that features exhilarating solos from both Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell. A second Coleman tune, “Ramblin,” picks up the pace significantly, with a propulsive, driving bass and drum vamp from Reuben Rogers and especially drummer Eric Harland, who pounds away as though he’s leading a New Orleans parade line. Frisell and pedal steel player Greg Leisz bounce riffs off each other; you almost get the impression that the Southern Crescent train is barreling into the NOLA station. The mood again becomes more subdued with a pensive reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”; Lloyd’s tenor solo provides a moment of rapt meditation for the listener. Lloyd switches to flute for “Dismal Swamp” – a jazz-funk original which is far less dismal than the title would suggest.
The classic Thelonious Monk composition “Monk’s Mood” features extensive interplay between Lloyd, Frisell, and Leisz’s pedal steel, and a pair of tunes that stretch all the way back to Lloyd’s days with Chico Hamilton provide the album’s summation. “Lady Gabor” – the Gabor Szabo (Lloyd’s bandmate and guitarist with Chico Hamilton) original – features Lloyd again on flute, and is punctuated ecstatically by frequent bursts from both Frisell and drummer Harland. It provides a thrilling taste of the jazz fusion Lloyd initially gained notoriety for. The closing “Prayer” is another Lloyd original that dates from the same time period, and while it begins with a ruminative sax solo, it soon extends beyond the tune’s ballad framework with alternating bursts from both Lloyd and Frisell. Bassist Reuben Rogers gets the opportunity to step outside his normal boundaries with a very nicely played solo.
The sound quality of Qobuz’s 24/96 digital stream was nothing short of superb; Tone Poem is the first release this year in Blue Note’s Tone Poet series, which has been previously reserved for classic albums from the label’s back catalog. This marks the first album in the series chosen from a new release – that alone should be a telling indicator to anyone of the quality of this record. I’ve heard nothing but raves for all the albums (especially the LPs!) that have been released thus far – and the LPs tend to sell out very quickly. I plan on trying to grab one, but no worries; the high-resolution streamed files are remarkably good. This is essential listening, and comes very highly recommended!
Blue Note Records, CD/2 LP (download/streaming from Qobuz [24/96], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Dr. Lonnie Smith – Breathe
“Dr.” Lonnie Smith is easily regarded as the Zen master and current guru on his instrument among Hammond B3 organ aficionados. The title “Doctor” isn’t a degree he’s earned or been awarded; it’s more of a sign of respect from the many players he’s appeared with throughout his lengthy career that spans more than seventy album appearances. These include several dozen albums as a leader – apparently, Lonnie Smith likes to “doctor” his Hammond B3 parts with his often quirky and eccentric improvisational stylings. Smith first gained acclaim for his work with George Benson’s quartet in the mid-sixties, and followed that experience with a series of excellent albums for the Blue Note label running from the late sixties into the early seventies, which helped form the foundation of the “groove/funk” school of B3 playing. Despite many appearances on a multitude of labels over the decades since, he returned to the Blue Note fold in 2016, and Breathe is his third album on the classic jazz imprint since rejoining the label.
Breathe showcases Lonnie Smith’s core trio of guitarist Jonathan Kreisburg and drummer Johnathan Blake; the trio is expanded to a septet on some of the tunes with a horn section that features trumpeter Sean Jones, John Ellis on tenor sax, Jason Marshall on baritone sax, and Robin Eubanks on trombone. And none other than Iggy Pop (!) adds vocals to the album’s two studio recordings. The remainder of the record was recorded live at a 2017 session at The Jazz Standard in New York City. Lonnie Smith has always felt that his live recordings get much closer to the essence of his artistry with the Hammond B3. That 2017 live date yielded the excellent 2018 album All In My Mind, but the good doctor felt that there was too much great material still unreleased from the session to not incorporate some of it into Breathe.
On Breathe, Dr. Lonnie Smith proves that despite being 78 years old, he’s one of the few artists of his generation who can still create the same level of excitement and intensity that were the hallmarks of his youthful recordings. The live tunes alternate between trio and septet settings, and consist mostly of Smith originals, with the lone exception of Monk’s “Epistrophy.” The twelve-plus-minute “World Weeps” starts with a slow dirge of a drum roll from Johnathan Blake, which slowly segues into a nearly six minute guitar solo from Jonathan Kreisburg that alternatingly wails and screams. Ultimately, it gives way to a subdued B3 vamp from Smith that’s absolute ear candy. The twelve-minute runtime seems over far sooner – I could listen to this all day! Vocalist Alicia Olatuja sits in on one tune, offering a soulful rendering of “Pilgrimage”; Smith raved about her performance here, and altered his B3 comping to get out of the way of her beautiful singing.
Lonnie Smith lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and he frequently performs with his trio at Arts Garage in nearby Delray Beach. Iggy Pop started showing up regularly at the performances, and had many conversations with Smith about getting together in the studio. It finally happened, and Smith was excited to include two of the studio takes featuring Iggy Pop to bookend the live tracks. Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” (included by Sade on her 1984 debut record, Diamond Life) opens the album and features a droll but nearly perfect performance by Pop. And the record closes with what Lonnie Smith describes as a "funkified joyride" with a boogaloo-influenced take of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Breathe is an interesting and joyful album that demands repeat listening sessions.
I simply marveled at Lonnie Smith’s ability to energize these performances, making Breathe easily one of the most essential jazz releases of 2021. And the Jazz Standard tracks had some of the best live sound I’ve heard in a very long time – this is an exceptional recording! I’m hoping that an LP will be released, but till then, the 24/96 digital stream from Qobuz was outstanding, and this album comes very highly recommended.
Blue Note Records, CD (download/streaming from Qobuz [24/96], Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Frank Zappa – Apostrophe(’) (24/192 High Resolution Digital)
A first wave of Frank Zappa remasters have just appeared this week on Qobuz in both 24/192 and 24/96 high resolution versions. I thought it would be at least instructive to take a listen to one of the titles I’m infinitely familiar with to see how I thought it compared to the CD-quality version. I know that I haven’t always been particularly happy with the Rykodisc versions that are the only thing currently available, feeling that perhaps they’re a bit strident (and perhaps somewhat steely) sounding to a certain extent. At least in the case of the discs that I own and have ripped to FLAC for my music server.
I’ve only been able to find references to these remasters in two places; on Qobuz for streaming and download, and on the HDtracks download site (I’ve temporarily suspended my Tidal account, so can’t really comment about the availability there). There’s no available information I’ve been able to find on any internet website that references the remasters or where they’re sourced from, and the record label is simply listed as “Frank Zappa Catalog,” which, again, generates zero hits on the internet. So where these FZ remasters come from, and exactly how available they are going to be – at this point, I have virtually no idea.
So how does the 24/192 file – which is generally considered in digital file terms to be “studio master” quality – for the album Apostrophe(’) sound? My comments are based on my experiences with my current digital streaming setup, which retails for a tad over $10K USD (this only includes music server/streamer/DAC/galvanic isolation), and is, in my opinion, fairly revealing. Honestly, I wasn’t completely blown away.
I’ve purchased quite a few high-resolution digital downloads. An example I’ll use here that I feel is fairly representative of what’s out there are the high-res downloads from the band Yes. I own most of their catalog titles in one format or another, and many of their albums in multiple spinning disc, and digital file formats. In my experience with multiple purchases of high-resolution 24/192 digital downloads of this material, I’ve been mostly, and unfortunately — underwhelmed. For example, I recently purchased DVD-Audio discs of both Fragile and Close To The Edge, and both the Steven Wilson remix/remasters and the ripped 24/96 versions simply blow away the 24/192 competition. Now, I willingly admit that a greater degree of loving care was put into the Steven Wilson remasters, but I was just shocked that the 24/192 high-resolution downloads were so underwhelming in comparison — especially when we’re constantly told that they’re supposed to be “studio master” quality. In my opinion, even the 16/44.1 rips from the Steven Wilson discs sound much more organic than the high resolution 24/192 digital downloads, which sounded somewhat sterile to me.
I’m finding some of the same things with the 24/192 files on Qobuz for Apostrophe(’), although without the same level of sterility present in the Yes albums. I find greater clarity in the 24/192 FZ files, but I didn’t hear enough of a difference to justify purchasing the downloads (roughly $25 USD each). If anything, the greater level of clarity made the 1974 recording sound a bit more dated than I remembered it — and the rip of my Rykodisc CD sounded much more like the 24/192 file than different from it. That’s not what you usually hope for with a new, high-resolution remaster; you hope for greater clarity and improved detail, but sometimes there’s an unpleasant tradeoff. At least with Qobuz, you can try it before you buy it. YMMV, but it might be instructive to take a listen to these new FZ high-res remasters before deciding.
Frank Zappa Catalog, (download/streaming from Qobuz [24/192])
Header image of Frank Zappa courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.