This meet-up between singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams and jazzman Charles Lloyd is fortuitous. Williams — with her background in country, blues, and rock — provides a perfect complement to the Americana leanings of Lloyd’s work with the Marvels (guitarist Bill Frisell, pedal steel guitarist and dobro player Greg Leisz, and the rhythm section of Lloyd’s New Quartet, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland). Or, as the Memphis-born saxophonist said about meeting the Louisiana native at a Marvels concert, he “sensed a deep Southern crossroads connection.”
The album’s title, “Vanished Gardens,” suggests the elegiac strain that runs through all 10 of these tracks (five with Williams’s vocals). It also picks up the undercurrent of social commentary from the first Lloyd/Marvels collaboration, 2016’s “I Long To See You,” which began with an instrumental take on Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
If anything, the shades of the new album run even darker, the social consciousness even more explicit. That’s stated in titles like the Lloyd-penned opening instrumental, “Defiant,” but also in Williams originals like “Dust” (based on verse by her father, the poet Miller Williams, who died in 2015), which begins, “There’s a sadness so deep/the sun seems black.” It’s hard not to think that songs like this, especially in context here with Williams’s gospel-tinged anthem “We’ve Come Too Far To Turn Around,” don’t draw their desperation and bottomless sorrow as much from the contemporary social condition as from personal demons.
Lloyd complements Williams’s plaintive growl with his own tenor saxophone cries, in some cases the obbligatos becoming an ongoing commentary. On a couple of tunes, like “Dust” and Williams’s self-lacerating “Unsuffer Me” (“Come into my world/of loneliness/and wickedness”), the band’s free jams extend well beyond the last sung verse. Here Leisz’s whining pedal steel adds vocalized effects that become literal, with Lloyd’s “ghost vocals” howling in the background.
Such moments have a cleansing power that transcends despair. The affirmation of “Defiant,” meanwhile, is informed by its medium-uptempo shuffle rhythm and the intertwined lyricism of Lloyd’s tenor with Frisell’s six-string. “Blues for Langston and LaRue” shows off Lloyd’s buoyant flute work. The Lloyd/Frisell duet on Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood” is capacious and endearing. And the album closer, Jim Hendrix’s “Angel” — with just the trio of Williams, Frisell, and Lloyd — is a spare and apt benediction, dispelling darkness with the faith of art.
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.