The claims that producers make for their own projects cannot always be taken straight to the bank, but Zev Feldman’s remark about Manhattan Stories is provocative: “This just might be the holy grail for longtime Charles Lloyd fans like myself who think they’ve heard it all.”
The saxophonist’s career has been well documented. His voluminous discography on the ECM label alone is one of the permanent bodies of work in modern jazz. But we had not “heard it all.” The quartet on Manhattan Stories, with guitarist Gábor Szabó, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Pete LaRoca, left behind no known recordings. Until now. The contents of this two-disc set come from performances in two long-defunct venues, one civilized and patrician (Judson Hall, across 57th Street from Carnegie Hall), one not (Slugs’ Saloon, in the mean streets of the East Village).
It is loose, episodic, erratic, explosive, wildly inspired music, the kind the best jazz musicians only play for live audiences when they don’t know (or don’t care) that they are being recorded. George Klabin, a 19-year-old Columbia student who had a jazz show on the university’s radio station, recorded the material on CD1 in Judson Hall. A Lloyd fan, Bjorn von Schlebrugge, recorded CD2 in Slugs’, on a Nagra portable.
It is the summer of 1965. Revolution is in the American air. The opener at Judson Hall is “Sweet Georgia Bright.” Lloyd’s first solo rockets forward but then spins off course, into whirling flurries, while Carter and La Roca hammer and crash. Szabó knifes into the onslaught, inciting Lloyd to reach higher and further. Szabó plays an amplified steel-string acoustic guitar whose nasal twang sometimes sounds like a banjo. His ideas about how to interact with a horn player are unusual, less about comping or counterpoint than creative conflict. Lloyd and Szabó slash at one another, but the track, at 18 minutes, goes down many roads, including one that Szabó rides alone, propelled by the furious free energy of Carter and La Roca.
Szabó, who was born in Hungary, died at 45 in 1982. He was a major guitar innovator, now rarely remembered, who brought Eastern European textures and rock ‘n’ roll defiance into jazz. His fierce staccato phrasing was a perfect stark contrast to Lloyd, who was and is instinctively lyrical. Even on Manhattan Stories, where Lloyd plays with an impulsive abandon unique in his early discography, his tenor saxophone tone is glowing and rounded at the edges, not jagged.
After the passion of “Sweet Georgia Bright,” “How Can I Tell You,” a rapt ballad, is a surprising shift in atmosphere. But it intensifies. Lloyd’s quick fluid runs reveal that key elements of his language were in place by 1965. The only piece not composed by Lloyd is Szabó’s “Lady Gabor,” played at both venues. Lloyd has always saved his most insidious grooves for his flute. Both versions of “Lady Gabor” throb in 6/4, twitching and snaking. “Dream Weaver,” from Slugs’, is an obsessive, hypnotic processional, from which Lloyd, back on tenor, erupts to shriek and cry. “Slugs’ Blues” is an insinuating little line invented by Lloyd on the spot. It provokes solo acts of merciless aggression by each member of the band.
The production quality of this package is stellar. The clarity, presence and attack of Klabin’s sound in Judson Hall is remarkable. CD2 is sonically rougher, but good enough to get the Slugs’ vibe, the edgy, electric night air. The photos, by people like Lee Tanner and Francis Wolff, and no less than six essays, by writers like Don Heckman and Willard Jenkins, place this living music in a particular special moment in cultural time.