When Lucinda Williams joined Charles Lloyd & The Marvels at UCLA’s Royce Hall in April 2017, the musicians beamed with unbridled joy. Same for the fans fortunate to witness, to share the depths of the artistry and exploration happening on stage. There were tears, too, as Williams reached inside herself for expressions of love, longing and loss in equal measures. But the image that remains strongest from this remarkable night is of Lloyd, radiant and enchanted, at times not even playing, just taking in the wonders of this grouping that had come together around him.
That same energy and elation buzzed through the compact sessions in a Los Angeles studio that brought us the luminescent music heard on Vanished Gardens, the radiant new album featuring Lloyd and Williams with the singular set of talents that comprise The Marvels: Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums — musicians who just as Lloyd and Williams have done have set their own courses, found their own ways of expression and exploration, while thriving most profoundly in sparks-filled collaborative settings.
“A friend had turned me on to Lucinda when Car Wheels On a Gravel Road came out,” Lloyd recalls. “Lu has worked a lot with Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, so a couple of years ago she came to one of my Marvels concerts at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara. It was our first meeting and I sensed a deep Southern crossroads connection. Not long after that meeting she invited me to guest at her UCLA concert and then I invited her to guest at one of my concerts about a year later… It was clear we had something we wanted to explore together.”
The album opens with the instrumental “Defiant,” both an invocation, declaration and invitation to Lloyd’s partners to join their voices in one journey into the unknown, deep into the fullness of the human experience, the joys seen in the concerts, the darkness of doubt and despair, nothing off limits in the course of this riveting album.
“Couldn’t cry if you wanted to,” sings Williams in the next song, “Dust,” words she adapted from a poem by her celebrated father, Miller, shortly after his death on New Year’s Day, 2015. The song originally first surfaced on her 2016 album “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” with Leisz and Frisell playing on that version. But here it opens into evocative representations of the contrasting/complementing sorrow and acceptance of the words, the group probing every angle of the emotions — “Even your thoughts are dust.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of poets,” says Lloyd, “especially during my Big Sur days; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Diane diPrima, Schyleen Qualls, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman, James Dalessandro… putting words and music together. Lu is a poet. An authentic, American voice. Her sound is like an emotional barometer. A weather vane. Sometimes it swirls around in the tempest of a storm and sometimes it is sweet and pure as a Southern breeze carrying the intoxicating perfume of magnolia to you. As a poet, her imagery knocks me out. She is a reporter of the human condition, of life on planet Earth.”
The gripping “Vanished Gardens” follows, a masterpiece of in-the-moment group invention, music without definition. Rogers and Harland, the foundation pieces of many Lloyd projects for nearly 20 years, roil and rumble. Frisell and Leisz work the woof and warp of a thrillingly intricate tapestry. And Lloyd is somehow at once the raging storm and its calm, still eye.
“We know each other better now and therefore we can travel more freely down certain paths,” says Lloyd, reflecting upon how The Marvels have evolved since their 2016 debut I Long To See Her, which NPR called “music that evokes an uncommon state of grace.” That album featured guest vocals from both Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, but the collaborative nature the band has nurtured with Williams has led them to even greater heights of expression. “Having Lucinda on five of the tracks adds a new dimension to the overall experience,” says Lloyd, “for my listeners and for hers. I think on the new recording we were able to let go and plunge deeply into the sound.”
Unlock, the word that later in the album starts the song “Unsuffer Me,” a deep exposition of vulnerable, fought-for hope, describes it perfectly. Unlock my love. The state of the music, the state of these musicians, is open. Opening. Active. Seeking, expanding, exploring. Being and becoming. Williams draws power and strength from it, infusing that into her delivery, giving life to the hope, as well as the hurt, of the words. And in turn, the musicians become the words that Williams sings, extending beyond the words into the pure expression, stretching the song to a dozen breathtaking minutes.
This album comes as Lloyd celebrates his 80th birthday, entering his ninth decade at a creative peak in what now stands as a mountainous and formidable career. You can draw a line to this new music from his very first gigs at age 12 in his hometown of Memphis when he played alongside Roscoe Gordon, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, or Johnny Ace, and when pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. was his early music mentor and trumpeter Booker Little was his childhood best friend. Not a straight line, not by any means, but a strong one, marked by his resolute vision.
It threads through his move to Los Angeles in the mid-‘50s to study modern classical music at USC, at the same time gigging in clubs with some of the most forward-thinking figures of jazz, including Gerald Wilson, Ornette Coleman, Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro and Bobby Hutcherson, and through his role as music director of Chico Hamilton’s band (which he took over from Dolphy in 1960). It winds through the Charles Lloyd Quartet (featuring future stars Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Ron McLure), which erased boundaries between jazz, soul and psychedelic music and in 1967 became the first jazz act to play the famed Fillmore in San Francisco, and his New Quartet of the past decade (with pianist Jason Moran joining Lloyd, Rogers and Harland). It goes through culture-crossing collaborations, from a partnership with Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji in the ‘60s through more recent landmarks with Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain (the 2006 album Sangam) and Greek classical singer Maria Farantouri (2011’s Athens Concert). It’s seen him sought after to play with The Doors, Grateful Dead, and The Beach Boys. And it’s brought him honors through the decades, from DownBeat’s jazz musician of the year in 1967 to the NEA Jazz Master award in 2015 to induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
All of that figures into Vanished Gardens, even the country strains of the Marvels, reaching back to his teen years when the swinging Snearly Ranch Boys often played on bills with the groups Lloyd was in, and he became close friends with the group’s pedal steel wiz Al Vescovo. This was all in the Marvels mix. Lloyd and Williams bonded easily over their southern roots. She was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana and raised in various locales of the region, moving around with her father as he established his renown as a poet and educator. Williams, too, long ago transcended the styles with which she had been associated, while remaining grounded in and a student of traditions that have shaped not just generations of American music, but American literature — and indeed, the American character. Frisell, too, has through his acclaimed career stood as a singularly mercurial guitarist with a taste for adventure belied by a gentle spirit. Leisz has partnered with both Williams and Frisell regularly over the last two decades, developing empathic approaches that both support and enhance them, oft-understated in his approach, but always dazzling. And Rogers and Harland, who have played with Lloyd in many different settings, also bring equal measures of artistry and intuition to this music.
The collective inspiration and provocation, in the most positive sense of that word, courses through every song here, every note. No two pieces here are shaped the same, nor do any of them hold to any predictable shape. The country air breathed on I Long to See You breezes through “Ballad of The Sad Young Men,” embodied in Leisz’s pedal steel. New colors emerge from Williams’ romantic road-trip “Ventura.”
And listen how Lloyd’s solemn saxophone intro seeds the fervent determination of Williams’ new, gospel-informed, “We’ve Come Too Far,” or how his playful flute skips in tandem with Frisell’s guitar through “Blues for Langston,” or the muted conversation Lloyd and Frisell have on Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.” That, in turn, leads to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” with Williams’ full-hearted interpretation closing the album on a note of benediction. If “Defiant” starts Vanished Gardens with a call to action, “Angel” ends it with a perfect prayer for peace.
Three-time Grammy Award winner, Lucinda Williams has been carving her own path for more than three decades now. Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Williams had been imbued with a “culturally rich, economically poor” worldview. Several years of playing the hardscrabble clubs gave her a solid enough footing to record a self-titled album that would become a touchstone for the embryonic Americana movement – helping launch a thousand musical ships along the way.
While not a huge commercial success at the time Lucinda Williams (aka, the Rough Trade album) retained a cult reputation, and finally got the reception it deserved upon its reissue in 2014. Jim Farber of New York’s Daily News hailed the reissue by saying “Listening again proves it to be that rarest of beasts: a perfect work. There’s not a chord, lyric, beat or inflection that doesn’t pull at the heart or make it soar.”
For much of the next decade, Williams moved around the country, stopping in Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, and turning out work that won immense respect within the industry (winning a Grammy for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version of “Passionate Kisses”) and a gradually growing cult audience. While her recorded output was sparse for a time, the work that emerged was invariably hailed for its indelible impressionism — like 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which notched her first Grammy as a performer.
The past decade brought further development, both musically and personally, evidenced on albums like West (2007), which All Music Guide called “flawless…destined to become a classic” and Blessed (2011), which the Los Angeles Times dubbed “a dynamic, human, album, one that’s easy to fall in love with.” Those albums retained much of Williams’ trademark melancholy and southern Gothic starkness, but also exuded more rays of light and hope. This all led to the 2014 release of Williams’ first double studio album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. The album received overwhelming praise from the media and fans, thus proving that Williams’ songwriting is as strong and important as it has ever been.