CD review: Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri's "Athens Concert"

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Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri
Athens Concert
ECM; Release date: Sept. 13, 2011

It’s been upwards of 30 years since anything like the Charles Lloyd New Quartet hit the jazz scene. Back in the early '80s, Wynton Marsalis became a superstar in the bosom of septuagenarian drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Now it’s a MacArthur Genius, pianist Jason Moran, sitting at the feet of 73-year-old reed master Lloyd, whose first LP as a leader on the Atlantic label dropped in the mid '60s.

There’s a big difference between Blakey-Marsalis jazz orthodoxy and the arms-open-to-the-world eclecticism of Lloyd, who plucked a young Keith Jarrett from the Blakey band decades ago to tour Europe and Russia during the LBJ Era. Add two or three guest artists to the mix and it’s hard to predict what you’ll hear from Lloyd’s New Quartet. Back in January, when I saw the band in a Jazz @ Lincoln Center concert, Moran’s wife, vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, added a cluster of Negro spirituals to a program that already had branches in Eastern mysticism, free jazz, Tin Pan Alley and the Beach Boys.

Athens Concert chronicles more than a journey to Greece in 2010. It is the distillation of Lloyd’s absorption of Greek poetry and music, abetted by the keening, unabashedly tragic vocals of Maria Farantouri. Remember Morgana King? This Athenian diva wipes the floor with her. Wave after wave of lyricism washes over us as Lloyd and Farantouri’s primal voice sing — sweetly, solemnly, and grandly. Moran is ever-present in the background, adding color and poignancy, but listen to him swing out between Farantouri’s mournful vocals on “Requiem,” a Lloyd melody dressed with Greek lyrics by Agathi Dimitrouka.

Half of the 87-minute concert, spread over two CDs and mercifully priced in twofer range, is devoted to a three-part Greek Suite arranged by Takis Farazis, who brings a second piano to the stage. Each of these sections has three to five tracks that flow into one another, seamlessly blending fresh music and lyrics with traditional songs from Smyrna, the Dodecanese Islands, the Black Sea, the Epirus region, and the Early Byzantine church. A rather epic journey within the journey, peaking at the end of Part I “In the Paradise Garden” with a pounding melancholy intensity that puts me in mind of The Doors’ “Riders in the Storm.”

Part II is a majestic thing even before it begins, for Lloyd’s “Prayer” flows right into it without a pause, crowned by Farantouri’s vocalise in sublime harmony with the composer’s tenor sax. Lloyd also plays flute and tarogato in the last two parts, freshening the colors along with Socratis Sinopoulus, who joins the party on lyra during the long instrumental intro to Part III. Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums complete the wonderful rhythm section.

I’ve never quite understood the Grammy jazz aesthetic, but Athens Concert sounds like a surefire nominee to me.

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