At first glance, it might seem that pairing jazz artist Charles Lloyd with Lucinda Williams was a decidedly eclectic choice, but in many ways they have a deep, spiritual connection that spans decades. Both share Southern roots: Charles Lloyd hails from Memphis, Tennessee; Lucinda was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, before living in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. They are also both lifelong musicians; Charles has been playing since he was nine years old, Lucinda has been writing since she was six and playing guitar since the age of twelve. They have both recorded live at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. Furthermore, they have both collaborated with musicians Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, current members of the Marvels. After meeting a few years back, they formed a natural bond that Lloyd claims to have been providence—“Southern crossroads met”—and recorded Bob Dylans’ blunt anthem “Masters Of War” a couple of years ago, setting the template for their current collaboration, Vanished Gardens. They entered the studio with no fixed ideas—only a spiritual connection, and mutual appreciation for each other’s musical artistry.
The opening track, “Defiant,” sets the tone with an instrumental that draws the listener in for what proves to be an ethereal, mystical journey with Frisell’s muted atmospherics ballasted by Reuben Rogers’ hypnotic basslines and drummer Eric Harland’s deft accents, which give rise to Charles Lloyd’s soul-stirring flourishes on tenor saxophone. Lucinda Williams enters the fray on the gorgeous “Dust,” with her bluesy, burnished, barrel-aged voice complemented by the vivid jazz expressionism of the Marvels.
She revisits her masterpiece “Ventura” (from her 2003 recording World Without Tears) punctuated by Frisell’s crystalized phrasing and Greg Leisz’s sublime pedal steel accompaniment as she emotes lines like: “I wanna watch the ocean bend/ The edges of the sun, then/ I wanna get swallowed up/ In an ocean of love…”
“We’ve Come Too Far To Turn Around” comes across as a Civil Rights–inspired anthem deeply influenced by the Staple Singers and Dylan, its message clearly inspired by current events: “We’ve been victims of wrath/ And we’ve wavered from the path/ But we have come too far to turn around.”
The title track is Charles Lloyd at his finest. Lithe, and effortlessly graceful, it’s clear that after six decades as a musician, Lloyd still approaches music with an uncluttered, open mind. “Monk’s Mood” is a super chill duet with Lloyd entering after a delicate introduction from Frisell, who also really shines on “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”
At nearly 12 minutes long, “Unsuffer Me” is a full-on purge and everyone’s completely committed and clearly inspired by the relentless emotional intensity brought forth by Williams. The closing track “Angel” finds Williams at her most introspective and confessional. It’s as gentle as a lullaby and the perfect closer. Those that have followed her career will notice a transformation in her voice. It’s no longer as fiery and clear as it once was. Vanished Gardens is a masterful work by a well-seasoned ensemble steeped in the mystery and majesty of blue-gray shades of jazz.