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December 2002

Charles Lloyd
Lift Every Voice
ECM Records

Like countless Americans, Charles Lloyd sought refuge and recovery in music after 9/11. The two-CD Lift Every Voice is something of a diary of Lloyd's terror-induced journey within-coincidentally, the California-based tenor saxophonist was in New York City, scheduled to open at the Blue Note that night. The album includes several pieces Lloyd repeatedly turned to during the months after the attacks, including spirituals and songs by Cuban composer Silvio Rodr¡guez. As an aural documentary of someone regaining his psychological and spiritual equilibrium, Lift Every Voice is a frequently affecting statement.

Aspects of the album's power and truth lie in what would ordinarily be cited as deficiencies, particularly its jumbled sequencing and curious proportioning of materials. The first CD of the collection typifies both tendencies. The proceedings commence with "Hymn to the Mother," a Lloyd original bearing some resemblance to Miles Davis' "Shhh/Peaceful," which drones on for 15 mind-emptying minutes. Lloyd, guitarist John Abercrombie and pianist Geri Allen glide in and out of the foreground with haikulike nuggets of melody, maintaining an aura of tranquility without letting the music become soporific. This cleansing, breathy prelude sets up a reading of the pop ballad "You Are So Beautiful." Both Lloyd and Allen sidestep the sap that usually oozes from this tune with well-honed understatement. When they are on the brink of bringing this zombie back from the undead, however, the track fades, and the listener is thrown into one Twilight Zone after another. "Amazing Grace" has a strangely bucolic, Bill Frisell feel, while Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is too smooth for comfort. Still, there is memorable music interspersed among these oddities, including a semisweet take on Rodriguez's "Te Amare," a poignant reading of Ellington's "I'm Afraid" and a mournful unaccompanied taragato solo, "Hafez, Shattered Heart."

Intentionally or not, Lloyd captures an essence of the psychological aftermath of 9/11: the reflexive need of Americans to find the right lighted candle of a song; and the limitations of American popular culture to provide when our unique sense of security has been undermined. Lloyd fares considerably better in constructing a cohesive statement with the second disc, where he focuses more on spirituals and folk songs, limiting his choices of contemporary materials to Rodr¡guez's incandescent "Rabo de Nube" and Billy Strayhorn's stirring "Blood Count." Additionally, originals buttress the second disc, like "Nocturne," whose heartache-laced lyricism is churned by the tandem bass work of Marc Johnson and Larry Grenadier and the impeccable drumming of Billy Hart.

Just as the learning curve of getting one's brain and psyche around an unprecedented event like 9/11 is conveyed by the discontinuity of the first disc, the elegantly stated second disc suggests a reassertion of the clarity necessary to be an effective witness. Lloyd dredged America's deep river of song to find that clarity, and dug deep within himself, both as a composer and an improviser. With the sensitive contributions of his cohorts, he has created an album that resonates well after it has ended.

Originally published in December 2002
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