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Our country 'tis of thee, musically

October 13, 2002|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Jazz has not often served as the vehicle for inspirational or spiritual ideas -- at least not in an overt, literal sense. Most jazz listeners (and musicians, for that matter), though, would be quick to note the subtle presence of those qualities in almost every aspect of the genre.

Duke Ellington's sacred music represents an exception -- a group of compositions inspired by and connected to specific spiritual reference points. Others--John Coltrane comes immediately to mind -- delved into more ecstatic areas of expression, as have many of the contemporary artists exploring the blending of jazz with various world musics.

The tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, produced surprisingly low-key reaction in the jazz world. A few CD arrivals this month relate, however indirectly, to personal responses triggered by Sept. 11, others simply expressive of the power of jazz to voice inner feelings, aspirations and spirituality.

Charles Lloyd

"Lift Every Voice"

*** 1/2, ECM Records

Lloyd always has danced to the beat of his own inner rhythms, even in his early, high-visibility years of the '60s. More recently, the saxophonist has produced compelling music on an amazingly consistent basis. Content to remain outside mainstream trends, his offerings have been the product of a highly personal, but intensely significant, spiritual worldview.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 01, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 338 words Type of Material: Correction
Pianist's name -- A review of Charles Lloyd's album "Lift Every Voice" in the Oct. 13 Sunday Calendar misidentified the pianist performing with him as Brad Mehldau. The pianist was Geri Allen.

In "Lift Every Voice," the emphasis is upon inner-seeking, meditative sounds framed in a jazz setting.

The material includes originals, as well as an occasional gospel song. And the mood, even in the few titles that include briskly rhythmic passages, is calm and thoughtful.

Lloyd's work on tenor saxophone and flute is extraordinary, embellishing velvety high notes with his patented melodic ornamentations -- sly curlicues of notes connecting passages and ending phrases.

Pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist John Abercrombie are perfect companions in an intimate, three-way musical conversation.

This is music in which the messages are never literal. But his response to Sept. 11 is expressed at a level beyond words, rising from the inner reaches of improvisational creativity.

Monty Alexander

"My America"

*** 1/2, Telarc Records

This an upfront, heart-on-his-sleeve effort by the Jamaican-born pianist to articulate his loving musical vision of this nation. The very directness of Alexander's approach, in which he neither indulges in patriotic excess nor hesitates to tap into the popular psyche, makes for a compelling musical experience.

The songs run the gamut of Alexander's musical memories, from the jaunty fun of "Don't Fence Me In" and the darkly swinging "Mack the Knife" to the soulful sensuality of "Sexual Healing" and the rousing spirit of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Along the way, Alexander is aided by vocalists Freddy Cole, John Pizzarelli and Kevin Mahogany.

But what makes this CD special is the quality of personal drive and energy that Alexander brings to his interpretations. Listening to his soloing, one never doubts the authenticity of his feelings or the sheer, passionate involvement with which he approaches the music.

Charlie Haden

"American Dream"

***, Verve Records

In the promotional material for this release, the bass player insists that "American Dream" "wasn't conceived because of ... Sept. 11th, but to express the way I feel about this country, which is built upon the ability to have dreams and create."

But the choice of material and the way it is presented suggest (with the exception of "America the Beautiful" and the Haden-penned track that gives the album its name) that the title may have simply been tacked onto a recording otherwise lacking a theme. Unlike other superbly conceived and executed recent Haden releases, "American Dream" simply doesn't match the music to the presumed concept.

It does, however, offer another installment in Haden's fascination with orchestral sounds that could serve as scores for cinematic mystery thrillers. Arrangements by Alan Broadbent, Jeremy Lubbock and Vince Mendoza of songs such as "It Might Be You" and "Love Like Ours" (by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Dave Grusin), the standard "Young and Foolish" and tunes by Haden, Keith Jarrett, Don Sebesky and others provide lush (sometimes too much so) settings for impressive solo excursions by tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and pianist Brad Mehldau.

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