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At this point in his career, saxophonist Charles Lloyd is at least a half century past having anything to prove. The wild, spiritually driven audacity that has largely shaped his reputation over the eras now manifests as a quiet reverence. And though the core of the saxophonist’s musicality has long since solidified, he continues to seek out and exhibit new aspects of himself. Lloyd is able to present distinct cross-sections through his ability to internalize and refract the musical character of his collaborators.
The unconventional format of his most recent project also helps leverage the jazz vet’s playing into a place of novelty. This “Trio of Trios,” released sequentially on Blue Note in June, September and November (and also as a vinyl box set), is without a single drummer. Each trio features a different guitarist and is filled out by bass, piano, percussion and vocals, respectively. The most immediate impact of these lineup choices is the introspective, diffuse quality of the arrangements. When grooves do emerge, they are subcutaneous — more organizing than driving. Often the musicians move in and out of free time, coalescing organically around a pulse and burying or dissolving it with equal fluidity.
Lloyd best capitalizes on this ambient bent with Chapel, recorded before a live audience in the belly of the Coates Chapel at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas. For this delicate outing, the bandleader enlists guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan, who have collaborated extensively as a duo. These five fairly straightahead compositions (two covers and three Lloyd originals) allow the accomplished improvisors to kick back into comfortable, considerate dialogue. All three are more inclined to leave space than to fill it, highlighting each other’s gestures by way of retraction instead of affirming ideas through repetition. The concert opens with a spellbinding rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Lloyd takes advantage of the sparse instrumentation, spacious tempo and dramatic acoustics by focusing on timbral exploration. Full of breath and phlegm, his tone oscillates between mournful softness and compact, throaty insistence.
To be released in November, Sacred Thread, with Julian Lage on guitar and Zakir Hussain on vocals and percussion, echoes Chapel’s focus on melody and counterpoint. The absence of a conventional rhythm section allows the musicians to mingle on equivalent terms rather than separating the music into more strictly complementary parts. There are multiple voices at play here (one of them literal). A generational ambassador of the tabla, Hussain takes this opportunity to highlight his singing. Penning three of the album’s seven originals — “Guman,” “Saraswati” and “Kuti” — he guides his collaborators through each piece with slow, incantatory precision. His voice sounds young. Lage, among the most emotionally transparent musicians on the scene, frames Hussain’s offerings with an obvious sense of fascination. The guitarist is the rare former child prodigy whose precociousness has extended into adulthood; currently in his mid-30s, he balances the prudence and compositional insight of a late career master with the explorative vigor of a person still rapidly unfolding.
With two chordal instruments, Gerald Clayton’s piano and Anthony Wilson’s guitar, the aptly titled Ocean is the most sonically expansive of the three albums. The set was livestreamed during the height of 2020 quarantine from the Lobero Theatre in Lloyd’s hometown of Santa Barbara, California. The saxophonist has played this room more than any other throughout the decades, but never before to an empty house. On “The Lonely One,” Clayton conjures a phantasmagoric backdrop for the composer’s solemn melody. The music is labyrinthine, commanding attention with extreme dynamics and prismatic, nocturnal harmony. Much like the other trio releases, Ocean centralizes the internal sphere and guides the listener in tow: potent medicine for a global era in which the external was put on hold. - Asher Wolf