Charles Lloyd Group and Joe Lovano/Dave Douglas Soundprints – bold and beautiful at Barbican

If ever gravitas was needed to close an event with a profile as high as that of the EFG London Jazz Festival then this was it. Tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd in the second set and trumpeter Dave Douglas and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano in the first was more a case of stellar double bill than headliner and support. Perhaps more importantly the combination provided fascinating food for thought on the way in which key historical figures in improvised music pervade the contemporary scene without stifling the creativity of their genuinely progressive scions.

Soundprints, the name of the Douglas-Lovano ensemble, a brilliant quintet driven by the incisive drums-bass twin engine of Joey Baron and Linda Oh and competed by pianist Lawrence Fields, is a thinly veiled reference to Wayne Shorter’s legacy. The mutation of the word ‘Footprints’, a signature piece of one the most tantalising minds of jazz, captures something of the shape-shifting character of he who Miles Davis called “the ideas man”, and fully translates into the music. Lovano and Douglas, intrepid and prolific post-modernists with careers reaching back to the 1970s and 80s when they emerged with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Horace Silver, respectively. They convey all of the structural elasticity and narrative wit beholden to Shorter in their originals and interpretations of new pieces he himself wrote after hearing the group, above all ‘Destination Unknown’, a charged, playfully episodic voyage built on a hovering rhythm and slanting unison lines that break up into all manner of dot dash motifs in a loose 4/4 before tightening into a sharply skipping 6/8. The joyful, dancingly seductive implications of that time signature give way to an atmosphere of profound contemplation when Lloyd, projecting the aura of a kindly yet charismatic sage, launches into his set after the break.

TD-Charles-Lloyd-L-03If the Soundprints group highlighted Shorter’s [and its own] ability to write songs as suites in miniature with abundant harmonic detail packed into a single box of tricks, then this was a suite that was given its full glorious realisation by an artist whose rise to fame in the 1960s, after catching the ear of the rock crowd, was followed by a hiatus in the 80s and triumphant reemergence in the 90s as the ECM icon to match Keith Jarrett, his erstwhile sideman.

On the one hand there appears to be something of a paradox in the work’s title Wild Man Dance insofar as so much of the music hinges on the absolute sensitivity of an ensemble comprising Americans, drummer Eric Harland, double bassist Joe Sanders, pianist Gerald Clayton, a Greek lira player Socratis Sinopoulos and a Hungarian cymbalom virtuoso Miklos Lukacs. Lengthy fanfares in which the whole group teases and massages notes into being rather than pushing them into life are the order of the day, and on many an occasion the beautifully liquid quality of Clayton’s chording allied with that fluttering, feather-in-the air character of Lloyd’s ascending phrases recalls both the saxophonist’s own late-60s landmarks such as ‘Forest Flower’ and the proto-ambient sound of Pharoah Sanders and Lonnie Liston Smith.

Everything seems to be a meditation. Harland releases soft showers of quarter notes from the cymbals and drizzles of percussion from the snare while Sanders alternates short scalar lines and expansive flurries of swing. Yet as the energy levels rise there is never a chance of the rhythmic whirlpool bubbling over. What furthers this sense of the sound simmering is Lukacs’ superb touch on the cymbalom. His high, bell-like pitches often sound intriguingly close to a kind of Delta finger picking guitar that infuses a tremulous bluesiness into the whole performance, and as the suite unfolds he starts to raise the intensity of his attack and act as the other preacher in the metaphorical house of praise that Lloyd brought to the stage.

Lloyd’s engagement with musical traditions from around the world is deeply rooted but so to is his embrace of popular culture, exemplified by collaborations with the Beach Boys and early gigs in R&B combos. So somewhat fittingly the evening concludes with a startling stylistic twist: a crisp, sharp hip-hop groove in which the backbeat is heavy rather than leaden and the very physical sensation of the two beat bass drum pattern hard to resist. Heads are nodding in the second row. The spirits of Robert Glasper and Chris Dave, particularly when Harland fizzes his hi-hat into treble time, float across the room, which is another shot of irony given that Lloyd, like the former, is now a Blue Note artist. If the label is celebrating its 75th birthday this year then it surely has a right to feel energised by the irrepressible youth of the saxophonist of the same age. 1939 was a very good year.    

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Tim Dickeson

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