Jazz Albums Round-up: Legend of the softie school

By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
A COMMON-SENSE dictum of jazz discourse decrees that tenor saxophone players fall into one of two schools. Either they are hard-edged followers of Coleman Hawkins, or softie lyricists in the tradition of Lester Young. According to this immutable law, Sonny Rollins, say, would be placed in the Hawkins camp, while Stan Getz would be grouped with Young. Charles Lloyd, whose new album for ECM, Voice In The Night, is likely to remain one of the best jazz albums of the year is, on the face of it, a Lester man through and through.

Though Lloyd is easily accomplished enough to follow whatever path he wishes, he tends to favour tone over speed, and expression over technique, to the extent that his solos seem to flutter by in a dreamy haze of understated yet never the less passionate emotion.

Now aged 58, Lloyd was once the most famous jazz musician of his generation, when in the hippy-era of the Sixties he led a quartet featuring the young Keith Jarrett on piano. After prematurely retiring to cultivate his Californian garden (where he was sought out by the young Michel Petrucciani), Lloyd re-emerged at the beginning of the Nineties with a series of albums for ECM.

This latest installment is likely to make him a star once again. Accompanied by a super-group of Dave Holland on bass, John Abercrombie on guitar, and the uniquely subtle Billy Higgins on drums, Voice In The Night is almost entirely successful. On a range of tunes that mixes six Lloyd originals with Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing", and the perhaps surprising choice of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello's "God Give Me Strength", the band strokes through the chord changes with an insouciant, laid-back charm while Lloyd himself plays solo after solo in a vein of swooning lyricism, as if he is sighing into the microphone.

The recording's perfectly judged acoustic, whose delicate bloom of a reverb adds just the right degree of airiness to the sound, creates an intimate, chamber-jazz aesthetic that suits Lloyd's style right down to the ground. The result is a quietly thrilling album that releases its pleasures slowly.

Another new ECM release, Not Two, Not One, by the trio of pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, is less immediately attractive than the Lloyd, but it repays careful listening.

Each of the band members is a master not only of their instrument but of the interplay between "time" and `free" playing that has characterised late-modernist jazz over the last three decades. When they combine in up-tempo, free-wheeling improvisations, and Bley's spiky, chromatic solos start to buzz up and down the keyboard, it's heady stuff. Peacock's double bass has a kind of hard-won grandeur to it, and Motian continues to play, as Charlie Haden once said of him, as if the drums were a musical instrument.

The kind of cross-cultural chamber-jazz pioneered by ECM is evident on the latest release on the Enja label by the Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. Yara is a re-recording of music written by Khalil for a film of the same name directed by Yilmaz Arslan, and it features a quartet including the dazzling French violinist Dominique Pifarely. It's rich, subtle music with strong echoes of flamenco, but perhaps less jazz-friendly than last year's Thimar by the Tunisian Anouar Brahem.

In contrast, the prosaically titled Indian Sitar and World Jazz (WEA), by the French group Mukti, while less highbrow or culturally "pure", is both more jazzy and more fun. Compromising an "acoustic" album and a further CD of remixes, the sounds of sitar and tamboura are complemented by jazz trumpet, bass clarinet and rhythm section to produce a kitsch hybrid of East and West. Brigette Menon's sitar playing may not be in the Ravi Shankar class, but even if it were, would we notice? Here, the bricolage rather than the individual components, is the thing.