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In the context of Charles Lloyd’s storied musical life, the Marvels might be viewed as a late-breaking “party band” venture. Contrasting the revered veteran’s long-standing format of a Coltrane-ish acoustic quartet, the Marvels finds Lloyd in cahoots with tasteful electric guitar maestro Bill Frisell, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, Reuben Rogers often opting for electric bass, and frequent drummer Eric Harland leaning into groove pulses. Song lists dip into pop, country and R&B, and the first two Marvels releases featured cameos by Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams.
Tone Poem, their third release, sans vocals, amounts to their strongest, most unified statement on record. At times, Lloyd’s gospel and R&B sensibilities come full circle, illuminating the Memphis-bred musician’s early gigging with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King; his seminal Memphis soul training; and his ’70s brushes with the Beach Boys. More historical looping shows up with the opening one-two punches of Lloyd’s erstwhile jamming partner Ornette Coleman’s “Peace,” done up in a painterly, loose-limbed fashion, and a groove-lined take on “Ramblin.’” The empathetic Lloyd-Frisell dialogue recalls the partnership of the saxophonist with guitarist Gabor Szabo, especially on the title track and “Lady Gabor.”
Leisz’s pealing timbres shine bright on “Monk’s Mood” (also a highlight for Lloyd’s testifying tenor) and “Ay Amor,” and Lloyd’s penchant for “singing” through his horn comes to the fore on Leonard Cohen’s classic “Anthem.”
Tone Poem benefits from a steady glow, an advancing band aesthetic and a “groovular” pep in the step. It comes to a contemplative conclusion with “Prayer,” the album’s closing track offered as a benediction at a time sorely in need of one. — Josef Woodard