Check This Action: One Sax, Three Guitars

Check This Action: One Sax, Three Guitars
Julian Lage: Shervin Lainez

It starts with a tenor saxophone floating above spare electric guitar arpeggios. After a dipsy-doodle cadenza, the sax states a slow, deliberate melody and the guitar asserts itself more, while upright bass makes its presence known. With support from bassist Thomas Morgan, jazz eclectic Bill Frisell is feeling out sax icon Charles Lloyd, as always listening, sensitively embellishing, but leaving room. Soon, the tune transforms from its new-age-y entrance to somewhat of a modern standard. Eventually, Lloyd drops out, leaving Frisell to solo backed only by Morgan.

This is “Blood Count,” a Billy Strayhorn composition from Trio: Chapel. It’s the first in a trilogy of Trio CDs, the others subtitled Ocean and Sacred Thread, their releases staggered from June to October. What makes this ambitious series fascinating are the changing lineups, featuring three of contemporary jazz guitar’s finest, each possessing an identifiable voice – first Frisell, then Anthony Wilson, and finally, Julian Lage.

At 84, Lloyd is still a creative force. He grew up in the musical hotbed of Memphis in the ’40s and ’50s before moving to Los Angeles in ’56, where he earned a degree in music from USC. Over the years, he’s played with a gamut of greats stretching from Bobby “Blue” Bland to Ornette Coleman – including fruitful stints with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. As a leader in the mid ’60s, his group included guitarist Gábor Szabó.

His 1966 album Forest Flower sold a million copies, and in ’67 he was the first jazz act to play San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, where he shared bills with the Grateful Dead, Butterfield Blues Band, and Janis Joplin. Subsequent session appearances included The Doors, Beach Boys, Roger McGuinn, and Harvey Mandel.

In 2016 and ’18, Charles Lloyd and the Marvels, featuring Frisell and steel guitarist Greg Leisz, recorded two albums with repertoire bouncing from bebop to gospel, folk, Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War.”

Frisell and Morgan are left to interact in “The Song My Lady Sings,” penned by Lloyd, who doesn’t appear until almost four minutes in. Whether accompanying or soloing, Frisell doesn’t just leave room for others, his playing breathes, much like a horn player or vocalist. There’s more than enough speed-demon heroics among current jazzers; he’s the anti-hero – which has made him a hero to his many fans.

For Ocean, Lloyd’s sax and flute are backed by piano and guitar, in the person of Anthony Wilson. The guitarist is the son of arranger and big-band leader Gerald Wilson, so things come full circle, because in his teens Lloyd was a member of the elder Wilson’s band. Anthony is best known for his work with Diana Krall and has recorded with Paul McCartney, Mose Allison, Bobby Hutcherson, and others. Drawn to the playing of Clapton, Hendrix, and Page as an adolescent, he later absorbed T-Bone Walker, Wes Montgomery, and Duke Ellington.

Ocean is taken from a live-streamed concert at the Lobero Theatre in Lloyd’s hometown of Santa Barbara. Because there was no live audience, the hall essentially became a studio. Like Frisell, Wilson listens. The four extended Lloyd originals find him complementing the leader and pianist Gerald Clayton. In “Hagar and The Inuits,” the three solo simultaneously, their angular improvised lines never competing or cluttering, before Wilson solos in near-avant fashion. “Jaramillo Blues” finds them on solid ground, confidently playing a blues that’s anything but samey.

Sacred Thread features percussionist/vocalist Zakir Hussain and guitarist Julian Lage. A child prodigy, Lage was the subject of the mini-documentary Jules At Eight. Growing up near San Francisco, he took lessons from Randy Vincent, recorded with David Grisman (at 11) and studied at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music and San Francisco Conservatory before, at 15, becoming a faculty member at Stanford’s Jazz Workshop. Look for a remarkable video of him at age nine playing “Maggot Brain” with Santana. Lloyd, who encountered him at 12, says, “He was known to be a wunderkind; he had big ears and I heard his potential.”

Now 34, Lage has released a dozen solo albums, served time with Gary Burton, and recorded with John Zorn, Nels Cline, and others. Reflecting the differing backgrounds and directions of Lloyd and Hussain as composers, Lage’s playing is both concise and free. It’s a testament to all of the players and Lloyd’s vision that such creative music involving extremely varied personalities resulted in three wondrous CDs.

Lage is also featured on three tracks from Pandemoonia by the Dharma Moon Orchestra. Co-leader David Nichtern wrote “Samba For Julio” for Lage, who trades single-note lines with trumpet great Randy Brecker. Julian stretches out on the bouncy “Thinkin’,” which earns a reprise with even more hot licks.

Nichtern is best known for penning “Midnight At The Oasis,” but he’s an excellent guitarist in his own right. His bandleader counterpart, keyboardist Matt Oestreicher, serves up some soulful B-3 on the title track, featuring cool wah-stortion from Nichtern.

These are four releases to suit jazz tastes you may not even know you have yet.

2022 Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author.

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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