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Charles Lloyd: A Jazz Supreme

by John Bloner, Jr.

I'd thought I had a good education in the history of jazz music. I spent many hours transfixed by the sounds of the giants of this genuinely American art form: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and more. Why, then, had it taken me nearly thirty years to hear of tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd?

It wasn't that Charles Lloyd was a footnote in the encyclopedia of jazz. In the 1960s, soon-to-be jazz legends were begging to be in his band. Keith Jarrett left Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to perform with him. Jack DeJohnette placed a 4:00 a.m. phone call. "You're going about it the wrong way," Lloyd told the drummer, but gave him the gig anyway.

Along with Cecil McBee on bass, Lloyd's band released "Forest Flower: Live at Monterey" in 1966.  The record became the first jazz record to sell one million copies "There is such sheer beauty and lyricism in the music," writes John Ballon, "that thirty years later it still gives goosebumps."

In 1967, Downbeat Magazine named him "Jazzman of the Year", and the accolades kept growing. Lloyd's quartet shared stages with rock artists Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and more. They toured Europe, the Far East, and the Soviet Union. His music received heavy airplay on FM radio.

Then, it was all over..or, it was a new beginning.

I was a time bomb waiting to detonate.  Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd walked away from the spotlight, the world stage, and toward the rugged stretch of California coastline known as Big Sur.  Author and former editor of Preservation Magazine, James Conaway, describes the area as "a mythic landscape of impenetrable chaparral and massive redwoods stitched to headlands plunging into an impossibly blue ocean".  He adds, "Against this backdrop, ordinary concerns seemed to pale; to live here was to view the world through a unique lens of beauty and peril".

Lloyd retreated from stardom and its temptations for excess and found quiet solitude, his nearest neighbors a mile and a half away, in the majestic and sometimes unforgiving landscape of Big Sur.

"I was a time bomb waiting to detonate", he told the website All About Jazz. "Burned out, sick of the music business, out of touch with everything and heavily abusing various substances, disillusioned with life, and intensely needed to work on my character."

Lloyd wasn't idle during the 1970s.  He released seven albums during that decade, many with blissful titles: Warm WatersWaves and Weavings.  Some of these records include members of the Beach Boys with whom he shared an interest in transcendental meditation. He also performed in the studio and live with California's penultimate band.

His 1979 release, Pathless Path, is an appropriate title to reflect Lloyd's journey toward wholeness. Physician and author Deepak Chopra speaks of Prince Siddharta who became the Buddha by walking the pathless path. "The pathless path isn't a straight line", Chopra writes. "The journey takes place entirely in consciousness. A mind overshadowed by fears, hopes, memories, past traumas, and old conditioning finds a way to become free."

The following video shows Charles Lloyd in Big Sur, reflecting on his music, his influences outside of jazz, including Native American culture, and on weaving. "I'm very much moved in our music by the weaving quality", he says in the video. "It's as if we make tapestries when we play, and there's this wonderful quality that the music is all a weaving."

When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.
Variation on a Buddhist Proverb

In 1981, French/Italian jazz pianist, Michel Petrucciani, visited Lloyd's California home, unaware of the saxophonist's legacy.  After hearing Petrucciani's talent on the keyboards, Lloyd decided to step out of self-imposed exile in order to showcase the young piano powerhouse.

"Charles Lloyd really opened every door for Michel", writes Ron Simmonds. "It could not have been a better start for his American career."

During 1982-83, the pair performed around the world, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, released several live albums, and saw Petrucciani earn many well-deserved awards.

In 1986, a rare intestinal disorder nearly killed the saxophonist.  When his doctors cleared him to play again, he began a new chapter in his life, signing in 1989 with ECM Records.

ECM, an independent European label, has released some of the finest recordings in jazz and classical music, since Manfred Eicher founded it in 1969.  Among its landmark recordings are The Koln Concert by Keith Jarrett, Bright Size Life by Pat Metheny with Jaco Pastorius, Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, and Tabula Rasa by Arvo Part.

Lloyd's first record with the label was Fish Out of Water, its title track echoing his famous tune, Forest Flower, from two decades earlier through its use of parallel major sevenths. He has since released fifteen additional records with the label.

(Photo by AP Photos/Gulnara Samoilova)
Charles Lloyd and his wife, Dorothy, were staying at a friend's home in Greenwich Village in September 2011. "We were in NYC to open at the Blue Note on 9/11", he told Graham Reid. "I was staying a few blocks from the World Trade Center and saw the second plane hit. It was a devastating time for all of us. I can still feel the pain of it today."

He shared the following with Paula Edelstein of JazzUSA. "We walked the streets of the Village where we were staying. It was an eerie place to be; no cars--just foot traffic and emergency vehicles. There was an overwhelming atmosphere of community and caring. We were all trying to make sense out of it, to understand the whole picture."

I used to fantasize about how art could save the world. Over the years, I've lost confidence in that idea, but listening to Charles Lloyd's 'Lift Every Voice' revives my hope.  Richard Anderson

Lloyd and his band performed at the Blue Note several nights later. "I got pretty spun out during the second set", he said.  "The next two nights we managed to dig in and lift the music to a higher plane." Over a year later, he released the two-disc CD, Lift Every Voice, containing his rendition of the song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing", otherwise known as the black national anthem, along with standards, spirituals, and his own compositions.  The record includes a jazz rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," whose words, written during the Vietnam War era, resonate even stronger in these years following the 9/11 attacks. "War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate."

Bill Shoemaker, writing for JazzTimes, called the record, "an aural documentary of someone regaining his psychological and spiritual equilibrium."  Thomas Conrad of Stereophile said, "This recording references issues so cataclysmic and transforming that Lloyd is moved to strip away the last protective layers of reserve and convention and let his shattered heart speak directly through his tenor saxophone."

Basically I'm a blues man trying to sing a spiritual song. Charles Lloyd

Just as he attracted the best musicians in the 1960s, Charles Lloyd continues to perform with men and women who are titans of the music world. His records on the ECM label have included pianists Brad Mehldau, Geri Allen, Bobo Stenson, and most recently, Jason Moran.  His drummers have been the late Billy Higgins, Billy Hart and Eric Harland. Reuben Rogers is the latest bassist to perform with Lloyd, joining luminaries like Dave Holland and Larry Grenadier.  John Abercrombie is a stalwart on guitar.

Beyond the traditional jazz ensemble, Lloyd also performs with the trio Sangam, including Harland on drums and Zakhir Hussain on tabla and percussion. Matt Cibula, writing for All About Jazz.com, commented, "For Lloyd, a man who is always on a quest, these are the ultimate wingmen."

I know the winds of grace are always blowing. I must raise my sails high enough to catch the breeze. Charles Lloyd

Through this article (and the artwork from my journal below), I have attempted to express the grace that Charles Lloyd's music has brought to my life, recognizing that words are not sufficient to share the journey that my soul has taken since first experiencing Lloyd's jazz supreme sound.  "Sweet Georgia," the poet Charles Simic wrote. "I hear someone whispering, 'Without the music, Life would be a mistake'."

He can be sort of candle-glow Coltrane, all softly flickering illumination.  Nate Chinen

In 2013, Charles Lloyd turns seventy-five, yet his music is outside of time. It draws upon sounds and traditions that precede his birth in Memphis, Tennessee by many years--even centuries--and it will go on through the young men and women who perform with him, listen to his voice coming through the saxophone, flute or taragato. Just like he once said of John Coltrane--"it was church whenever he played"--Lloyd's meditations through music exemplify a higher calling (without getting high-minded about it). Fred Jung, writing for All About Jazz.com, says "Each breath blown through his instrument has deep significance."  Jazz writer Joao Moreira Dos Santos adds, "There is an omnipresent sparkle of Lloyd's soul whenever he plays."

Lloyd simply says, "I beg the creator to let me be an open vessel. I try to get out of the way."

Visit Charles Lloyd online. Click HERE for his website.  Lloyd has recently released the record, Hagar's Song, with pianist Jason Moran.  ECM Records will release five of his earliest records with ECM in 2013.