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Shining a light on a rare jazz gem from 1970 by the Lloyd McNeill Quartet plus Tony Bennett at 95 and Gordon Lightfoot on Ontario's Georgian Bay
A few years ago, I visited my local record store with a specific purpose in mind. As opposed to trying to pick up as much as I could for as little as possible, I decided to limit myself to buying one album, preferably jazz, without regard for price…within reason. After digging through the stacks more than once, I came across an LP, Washington Suite, that promised “deep, spiritual jazz from 1970” by flautist Lloyd McNeill and his quartet. With a limited pressing of 1,000 copies on vinyl and a price tag that wasn’t too steep and equally intrigued that I had never heard of this music or McNeill, I decided to take the plunge. I brought the album home, placed it on the turntable and gave it a first listen. While the music wasn’t specifically “spiritual jazz” as I have commonly thought of it it—late-period Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders usually comes to mind—it was moody, ethereal, often funky and a powerful document of the efforts to fuse jazz with elements of rock.
McNeill, a denizen of Washington, D.C., has been, in addition to a jazz musician, a poet, a painter as well as a photographer. In other words, an all-around artist chasing the muse wherever it leads him. Ahead of his time too—he created his own record label, Asha, in order to release several albums of his music in the late-sixties into the seventies.
Washington Suite is the second of these efforts. The music was commissioned by Washington D.C.’s Capital Ballet Company and was recorded over two days in March 1970. McNeill was joined by local D.C. jazzman Eugene Rush on electric piano, Marshall Hawkins on bass and Eric Gravatt on drums.
Hawkins is perhaps best known as one of the coterie of bass players that would sub in for Ron Carter in Miles Davis’ second great quintet when Carter was unavailable while Gravatt would go to be the drummer in Weather Report as well as McCoy Tyner’s quartet. As for Rush, he remained centred in the Washington, D.C. jazz scene both as a musician and music educator—Washington Suite is among only a handful of appearances he would make on record.
His playing on the album reveals a pianist of true taste favouring a clean timbre on the electric piano as well as fluid single-line runs, rhythmic and funky chordal stabs and attentive comping. McNeill’s flute is equally clean, his sound centered in the middle register with a shade of vibrato on sustained notes. But what pervades principally when listening to Washington Suite is not necessarily the band, but the mood that the music creates and sustains throughout. Except for Gravatt and Hawkins momentarily slipping into a standard syncopated jazz rhythm during the bridge of Rush’s second solo chorus on ‘2504 Cliffbourne Pl.,’ funk, bossa nova and light rock rhythms predominate the proceedings. The decision for Rush to play electric piano as opposed to an acoustic grand further elevates the primacy of mood here—think a sound similar to Miles’ Filles de Kilimanjaro or the title track of Donald Byrd’s Fancy Free.
The first side of Washington Suite starts with the overt funk of ‘Home Rule,’ a modified blues which has the quartet lock into a groove that never relents with the only release being the occasional cymbal crash by Gravatt during the opening and closing theme statements as well as a series of ever more explosive fills as the track fades out.
Gravatt’s propensity to erupt on the drum kit provides a level of extroversion countering the often-introverted solo statements by McNeill and Rush. It’s put to good use on ‘Just 71% Moor,’ which often returns to a stuttering and exciting stop-and-start rhythmic motif that sounds like daa-daa-da-DAA. Rush’s introduction here foreshadows, through the use of insistent, jabbing chords on the electric piano, Chick Corea’s work in the first edition of Return to Forever with Joe Farrell, Flora Purim, Stanley Clarke and Airto Moreira. During McNeill’s and Rush’s solos, there is a building of tension in the song’s quasi bossa-nova rhythm which is then released to provide a satisfying resolution to each solo chorus.
The first side closer, ‘2504 Cliffbourne Pl.,’ is an ethereal masterwork. It starts with a few percussive effects that sound like bird calls (not unlike one of Airto’s signature sounds in his seemingly endless bag of tricks) that set the table for strong, melodic solos by McNeill and Rush. The use of a straight, slightly rock-inflected rhythm builds a sonic palette that is hard to shake after listening. It also paints a deeply textured scene. Here is what I see: it’s late October, dusk is settling in, the air is autumn crisp, cool and refreshing, the leaves are falling and crunch underfoot, brownstones line both sides of the avenue and cast shadows on the sidewalk, an individual strolls by with hands securely dug into coat pockets, the remaining light bedazzles the remaining leaves on the trees, there is wonder in the air. Where is our traveller going? A question in which the answers are endless.
Flipping the album over, the second side is bookended by two versions of the short ‘Fountain in the Circle.’ First performed as a piece of baroque chamber music featuring McNeill as well as Andrew White, a jazz saxophonist, soul bassist and foremost Coltrane scholar who plays oboe here and arranges the work for a woodwind quintet. It is recapitulated to close the album as a short duet between McNeill and Rush. Sandwiched in between is a three part suite, ‘City Tryptych.’
The piece begins with a short, vigorous bass solo by Hawkins which eventually resolves into a funky bass line underpinning the first of two vamps that form the heart of the suite. For each chorus in this section, the form is as follows: the band grooves on the vamp and then switches to a free interlude that lasts the remainder of the chorus. The vamp resumes to herald the beginning of the next chorus and so on. This movement from groove to freedom underpins McNeill and Rush’s first solos in the suite. After both solo for two choruses—Gravatt propels things forward with constant drum fills—the final free section resolves into Rush playing a descending pattern which forms the suite’s second harder-edged vamp to underpin second solos by McNeill and Rush. Gravatt keeps furthering the intensity with drum fills of increasingly muscular velocity that keep the groove on a precarious tightrope until a tape edit cuts to shimmering, echoing chords by Rush. A bell rings in a short, bucolic rubato statement shared by McNeill and Rush to conclude the suite.
As jazz negotiated the growing primacy of rock and soul in the late-sixties, there was a period of time before two distinct approaches emerged that bridged these genres, soul jazz and fusion (or more plainly, jazz-rock), where a handful of records were released that stand alone. They sounded like nothing that come before and like few that came after. Some that come to mind are the Gary Burton Quartet’s Duster, Miles’ In a Silent Way, Weather Report’s debut, Donald Byrd’s Electric Byrd and Cannonball Adderley’s 74 Miles Away. On these records, as on Washington Suite, the jazz is primary, and the rock and soul are secondary—they pull the music further outward, they explore how the innovations that were happening all around in music like through the sounds of James Brown, Motown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan could be applied to jazz. As with any art form in which its practitioners are newly empowered to experiment, try new things, and probe and search ever further into different territories, the results are often exhilarating and fresh, and remain so long after other works of similar vintage became forever dated.
Washington Suite is hard to find but worth the effort to discover (it used to be available for streaming but was removed at some point. Strike a W for physical product). I think you’ll love what you’ll hear.
Tony Bennett on 60 Minutes: If you have about 15 minutes to spare, the recent 60 Minutes profile on Tony Bennett’s final concerts at Radio City Music Hall just as he turned 95 this summer is worth your attention. The segment (the full video is available here) is an unflinching look at the toil that Alzheimer’s Disease has waged on Bennett but a consideration of how his 70-plus years as a singer nonpareil has kept his musical muscle memory largely intact. To see the old Bennett glow shine through as he rehearses at home and as he takes the stage is particularly moving. A companion piece is a recent article written by music journalist and critic Wayne Robins for his Substack ‘Critical Conditions.’
‘Christian Island’ / Gordon Lightfoot: A few days ago, my wife and I skipped town to a B&B in Collingwood, Ontario for some R&R. Only when we arrived did I realize we would be vacationing in Georgian Bay (the only plausible explanation to account for this is that geography is not my forte), which brought to mind Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Christian Island,’ an ode to sailing along the Bay that is one of the highlights of his 1972 album, Don Quioxte. A dreamy song with a beautiful recurring acoustic-guitar motif throughout as well as an indelible contribution on accordion by Nick DeCaro, it provided a most welcome and relaxing earworm throughout our short time in Georgian Bay and is as good an excuse as any to share with you all as well.