It’s hard to imagine a more rewarding night of jazz than spending it with Charles Lloyd & the Marvels. For 90 minutes on Thursday evening at One World Theatre, the 79-year-old bandleader held court with one of the coolest bands imaginable, casting one magical spell after another for a crowd that greatly appreciated instrumental journeys which transcended genre boundaries.
Last time through, in 2016, this all-star ensemble played downtown at the Paramount Theatre, not long after the release of their Blue Note Records debut “I Long to See You.” No less than Willie Nelson turned up as a guest on that album, for a splendid version of the anti-war standard “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” (The album kicked off with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and just to underscore where he’s coming from, Lloyd recruited Lucinda Williams for a vocal version of the track that came out last year on Inauguration Day.)
Thursday’s show featured no guest vocalists, nor were they needed. Alternating between saxophone and flute, Lloyd bobbed and weaved inside and around the beats thrown down by his longtime rhythm section of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers. Across the stage, the two aces who turned this ensemble into the Marvels, Bill Frisell on guitar and Greg Leisz on pedal steel, set the melodies aflight, filling the room with a warm glow on runs that were rarely predictable but consistently enchanting.
Basic structures underpinned the instrumentalism — the traditional folk song “Shenandoah,” for example (it’s also on the Marvels record) — but mostly the music fed off the free-form inspiration of musicians whose combined credits would read like the history of American popular music. As a teen, Lloyd played with blues icons Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, before becoming a jazz master as a young adult and eventually crossing over into pop as a mainstay in the Beach Boys’ lineup.
That’s just scratching the surface of what he’s done, and the same would be true if you researched the resumes of Frisell (Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, McCoy Tyner, Laurie Anderson) and Leisz (Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Ben Harper). Hell, these guys’ credits are so extensive, they’re even on a record that I produced.
Rogers and Harland are comparatively younger but with similar chops and bona fides. Their energy and enthusiasum propelled the Marvels throughout the set, which helps given that Lloyd, understandably, needed to take breaks occasionally. He’d retreat to a small bench at back center stage, point to one of his four bandmates, and smile as he became the happiest spectator in the house for a few minutes. Then he’d rise again, pick up his sax or flute, and find new places to take the music.
Lloyd spoke hardly at all, except to introduce his companions at the start and to praise the audience at the end for joining them in the journey. “Thank y’all for coming out,” he said. “We get lonely sometimes on this planet.” For an hour and a half, any loneliness disappeared, as everyone in the room shared in the moment of the music.