Music

Charles Lloyd: 'Looking for the one note that can say it all'

by Frank Spignese

Contributing Writer

Few musicians in any era, in any genre, have had such lengthy and varied creative journeys as saxophonist Charles Lloyd. The longevity of his 60-year career is honorable enough, but the unpredictability of his path and the ebb and flow of his musical ideas make him almost unequaled, in jazz. He’s like the David Bowie of the genre — a chameleon, blending, bending and constantly reinventing.

His current “new” quartet, features pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland — historically his longest serving sidemen, working together for nearly 13 years. On the cusp of a Japan tour that features gigs at both the Tokyo Jazz Festival (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) and Blue Note Tokyo in Minami-Aoyama, Lloyd reflects on their partnership.

“This group came together unexpectedly in the spring of 2007 when the wonderful (pianist) Geri Allen was unable to make one of my tours,” he says. “From the first encounter with Jason backstage at Carnegie Hall, I felt a deep connection with him and this can be heard in the music. As a group we share a camaraderie off the stage and on stage, we all love the challenge of the unknown. Music gives us wings and we love to fly.”

Lloyd’s quartet imbues its music with a seeking and a spirituality that is mightily adventurous without being overly obtuse or inaccessible. The three members besides Lloyd are in their 40s, a good generation or two younger than their leader. But the 81-year-old says that the age gap is absolutely irrelevant.

“I may have more years of experience, and they have experiences that I would not have had in my youth,” he says. “Collectively, many of our experiences are shared and overlap. As a family in music, we have created our own unique set of experiences we share together. In the final analysis, I am blessed with a beginner’s mind, so polarities do not impinge.”

A hallmark of Lloyd’s career has been his inquisitive nature and lack of conformity.

From the wild hard bop of his 1960s Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette Atlantic Records recordings, to the Eastern mysticism of his ’70s work and from the pop and rock detours that found him guesting with The Doors and The Beach Boys, to the more mature and streamlined music of his recent career, he’s never stopped stretching.

Lloyd claims this aural wanderlust is not forced, rather the organic nature of his true self.

“When you love music you love a lot of it,” he says. “I am open to the beauty and power of sound, whether it be the choir of frogs singing at night outside my window, or the Huichol chanting about the cosmos, or (Greek singer and activist) Maria Farantouri comforting us with the power of her voice or Thelonious Monk, alone at the piano.”

While Lloyd’s music has never been outright political or deliberately reactionary, there is a world-weary observational stream that runs throughout his art.

A child of the ’60s, Lloyd isn’t making music just for toe tapping and champagne sipping.

During the antiwar hippie heyday, he was one of a few jazz artists that crossed over and gained an underground rock audience. Beleaguered by the current state of 21st-century society, he is still not without hope.

“I am an observer and a reporter,” he says. “At this particular point in time, humanity has a dark cloud looming over it. The world is like a dog’s curly tail, you can try to straighten it out, but it curls back up. After all the work we did in the ’60s to end racism, pollution, nuclear weapons and war, it is a travesty to be where we are now. This too will change. Instead of politicians we need more sages in service to humanity.”

Lloyd’s American roots run deep. A longtime resident of Big Sur, California, he was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee.

While known more for its rock and soul artists, Memphis also produced a number of horn players endowed with a distinctly gutbucket, blue-collar demeanor. Growing up then and there, he claims, undoubtedly influenced him.

“Memphis is on the Mississippi River … upstream from New Orleans, and above us was Chicago,” he says. “Charlie Parker was conceived in Memphis and born in Kansas. It was a very fertile environment for a young soul to grow up in.

“Along with all of the great musicians who lived in Memphis, everyone from Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway to Howlin’ Wolf came to town. Many of them stayed in my mother’s house because the good hotels did not take people of color. As an aspiring musician at the age of 6, this was a thrill for me. Every morning when they came down to breakfast, I would be waiting to pounce on them, full of questions.”

One of the more colorfully quirky pit stops in Lloyd’s storied saga was his time recording and touring with The Beach Boys in the 1970s.

While not hugely successful when released, the albums he played on (“Surf’s Up” and “Holland”) have developed a cultish reverence among fans over time. His impassioned playing on the psychedelic single “Feel Flows” memorably showcased both his sax and flute skills.

“(The Beach Boys vocalist) Mike Love and I share the same birthday, March 15, though a few years apart,” Lloyd says. “He was a fan of my music and invited me to record on a couple of their albums. During my sabbatical years in Big Sur, they invited me to join them on a couple of tours. Brian Wilson is a great composer and songwriter. In recent years I have recorded ‘Caroline, No’ with the New Quartet and ‘God Only Knows’ in duo with Jason Moran.”

After a prolonged illness and an extended hermit-like time away from the music business in the 1980s, Lloyd returned to prominence with a series of well-received albums on the ECM label in the early 1990s.

These outings featured more focused and sparsely recorded music, eschewing the glossy production and poppy sounds that permeated his 1970s work.

Of particular note are the discs “Lift Every Voice” (2002) and “Jumping the Creek” (2005). The former is a moving rumination on post 9/11 America, and the latter a staggeringly beautiful take on mortality. Both discs feature Geri Allen.

Allen, one of the most highly regarded pianists of her generation, passed away from cancer two weeks after her 60th birthday in 2017.

“Geri Allen was a beautiful soul,” Lloyd says. “She was in service to the music and I am very proud of the music we made together. I miss her, and I know she is deeply missed by the whole music community.”

Still kicking, still gigging, still searching, the octogenarian has his fingers in many a pie. The recent documentary “Arrows Into Infinity,” produced by Lloyd’s wife and manager Dorothy Darr, covers the peaks and valleys of his epic career.

The album “Vanished Gardens,” a 2018 collaboration with Louisiana alt-country artist Lucinda Williams shows him again refusing to be pigeonholed.

“She is a poet and deeply sensitive. When we met, I recognized something in her eyes: that Southern crossroads thing,” Lloyd says of Williams.

A recording of Lloyd’s 80th birthday concert will soon be released on Blue Note Records as a double CD and triple LP.

Appreciative of the past, Lloyd remains focused on the moment.

“Sometimes I hear (my) old recordings on the radio or someone will play me something, but I don’t usually go out of my way to go back and listen. I’m always thinking about finding the next note.

“Truth be told, I am looking for the one note that can say it all. If I could find that note, I would be able to put my saxophone back in the case and go into the woods.”

Charles Lloyd will perform at the Tokyo Jazz Festival on Sept. 1, and at Blue Note Tokyo on Sept. 3 and 4. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com and www.bluenote.co.jp.

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