Blue Note Records B003313501, B003313402
Formats: LP, CD, 24-bit/96kHz FLAC download
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****½
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
Tone Poem is Charles Lloyd’s third outing as leader of the Marvels, the quintet that derives much of its unique sound from the combination of Bill Frisell on guitar and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. Lloyd’s stalwart rhythm section, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers, who have appeared on many of Lloyd’s recordings since the mid-2000s, completes the group.
The first Charles Lloyd and the Marvels disc, I Long to See You (2016), brought in singers on two tracks, and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams shared billing with the group on Vanished Gardens (2018). This time, the quintet presents nine instrumentals, one of them a live performance. Joe Harley oversaw the recordings, and it was Lloyd who gave Harley the nickname “Tone Poet” when they were both with ECM Records.
The two-LP version of Tone Poem is the first all-new vinyl release on Blue Note’s Tone Poet series, which Kevin Gray masters under Harley’s supervision. Previous Tone Poet LPs have been reissues from Blue Note’s catalog. Bernie Grundman mastered the digital versions of Tone Poem from the 24/96 digital recording files, which were also the source for the vinyl cut.
Lloyd and Frisell play the theme of Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” in tandem, with Harland’s skittering snare-drum taps adding a hint of tension. Leisz’s pedal-steel chord washes float around Rogers’s elastic bass lines during Frisell’s solo. Lloyd’s phrasing on tenor sax has a slightly Middle Eastern tone and attack, and Leisz’s high tones and volume swells give the closing section of the song a melancholy air. The band’s take on Coleman’s “Ramblin’” is loose and funky, the guitarists providing counterpoint while Lloyd riffs on, expands, and even disassembles Coleman’s melody.
Frisell and Leisz weave together a waltz in an old-fashioned country-and-western style for Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” Lloyd follows the song’s melody, conveying the emotions of Cohen’s lyrics, and the result is deeply affecting. A live performance of “Ay Amor,” written by Cuban pianist and singer Ignacio Jacinto Villa y Fernández (better known as Bola de Nieve), is unrushed and runs for over ten minutes. Solos by Frisell and Leisz are graceful and stirring, but it’s Lloyd who truly shines. His improvisational flights are grounded in the song’s beautiful melody, and he captures the gentle emotional qualities of Bola de Nieve’s singing style.
Lloyd switches to flute for “Lady Gabor,” a tune by Hungarian guitarist Gàbor Szabó that the two musicians recorded as members of Chico Hamilton’s quintet in the early ’60s. Frisell’s guitar chords dart around Lloyd’s swiftly moving melody lines, but it’s Harland on drums who manages the song’s ebbs and flows, expertly playing Hamilton’s role in the original while carving out his own statement. Lloyd has recorded the final track, “Prayer,” twice before, and reaches new depths of spiritual longing and profundity in this new arrangement of the song.
Charles Lloyd is inspired throughout this entire set. Frisell and Leisz set a unique mood for Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood,” and Frisell plays a beautifully constructed solo, but Lloyd’s performance on this track shows a lifetime of listening and playing, and pays tribute to Monk by demonstrating how much the composer and pianist taught him.
When I compared the vinyl and CD versions of Tone Poem, I felt the LP presented low notes on the kick drum and double bass more solidly, but the CD had a slightly crisper top end. During the busier sections of “Ramblin’,” the interaction of the instruments sounded more cohesive on vinyl and a flanging effect on Frisell’s guitar in the left channel was easier to hear. On “Anthem,” I found that Frisell’s arpeggiated notes were a bit more articulated on CD, but Leisz’s expansive chords on pedal steel sounded more ethereal on vinyl. Lloyd’s saxophone sounded more natural and tonally correct to me on the vinyl.
I decided to give the 24/96 FLAC download of the title track a listen. On “Tone Poem,” the difference between the high-resolution FLAC download and the CD was immediately audible. Lloyd opens the song in a duet with Harland; the latter’s kick drum and snare were more dynamic on the FLAC version, and had a much greater impact. Lloyd’s sax was more three-dimensional and timbrally realistic, and when the guitars and bass enter, Frisell’s chord phrasing, Leisz’s chord swells, and Rogers’s bass lines had more authority. The instruments were more there.
The vinyl had the same low-end presence and excitement as the FLAC version, but gave me a better presentation of the harmonic overtones on the guitars, and the music unfolded with a bit more ease. Lloyd’s playing had a remarkable three-dimensional, in-the-room immediacy on the FLAC and LP versions. Rogers and Harland are also well served in both formats. I’m usually tempted to lean toward vinyl over any digital format, but here the FLAC download brought me into the center of the music in a way I usually associate with vinyl, and of the three formats it is the most transparent.
Tone Poem shows Charles Lloyd, at 83, embracing past influences while continuing to move forward and challenge himself and his fans. The backdrops provided by Frisell and Leisz give Lloyd a lot of space and choices upon which to build his solos. Harland and Rogers are with him at every turn, keeping things well rooted, but reacting to what’s going on around them and helping the tunes reach their destinations. Tone Poem continues the Tone Poet series of sonically excellent vinyl releases, but in any format it is exceptional and essential music.
. . . Joseph Taylor