Charles Lloyd Enlightens Montreal
Charles Lloyd, the famed multi-reedist and composer, played the role of shaman during the opening weekend of the 34th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal June 28–30.
Over the span of his long and varied career, Lloyd has proven to be a seeking, spiritual artist of breadth and depth. He has become a citizen of the world with an artistic viewpoint impossible to fully capture in just one evening of his music.
As a result, to open this year’s jazz fest, Lloyd was given three nights and three very different musical settings in which to operate.
And that still left the festival’s audiences wanting more.
The first evening of his “Invitation” series at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe presented the Charles Lloyd Quartet, a massively talented group with pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers. The group weaved, twisted and wandered through a set that never seemed to rush to get to the point. Lloyd seemed equally at ease playing breathy lines on his tenor, Middle Eastern melodies on taragot, charmingly disarming runs on alto flute, or just taking a moment to sit back and listen to the near-telepathic conversations of his band mates.
For the second evening, Montreal’s organizers invited Lloyd’s Sangam project back to the festival for a second time. Sangam features Lloyd in collaboration with tabla master Zakir Hussain and Harland on drums. The group originally played as part of a memorial concert for Lloyd’s long-time drummer Billy Higgins, who passed away in 2001. Lloyd has said that in one of their last conversations, Higgins said they would always be together. Shortly after his death, Lloyd met Hussain and a young Harland, and Lloyd has said they are a fulfillment of Higgins’ promise.
The music was nothing less than a spiritual wonder. Lloyd began the evening on piano, but slid to the drums as Harland moved in to add percussive accents and rhythms to Hussain’s beautifully melodic tabla artistry. When not playing horn, Lloyd might walk over to play hand percussion into the open piano lid, sticking his head into the instrument and shaking his fists as if trying to free the soundboard from its worldly constraints.
The interplay between Hussain and Harland brought smiles to their faces as they locked into complex, dramatic rhythms behind Lloyd’s melodies.
For an encore, Hussain and Harland improvised with their voices as adeptly as they did on their percussion instruments while Lloyd humbly recited passages from the Bhagavad Gita. One could feel the audience smile, and a calmness set in. It was a reminder that music can take us to a deep, spiritual place.
For the third evening, Lloyd performed in a duo format with pianist Moran, reprising material from their February release Hagar’s Song (ECM) with grace and beauty. Tunes like Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and the Gershwins’ “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” displayed Moran’s gift for being an ultra-modern old soul and featured Lloyd’s breathy tenor expressions. “Hagar Suite,” the album’s centerpiece, is a chilling ode to Lloyd’s great-great-grandmother, who was taken from her home in Mississippi and sold to a slave owner in Tennessee.
At the midway point of the evening, Lloyd invited guitarist Bill Frisell to the stage to perform some fascinating atmospheric trio improvisations.
“This is our first meeting, so please be kind,” Lloyd joked to the audience before the trio eased into music that defied time and space. Frisell proved to be a perfect addition to the proceedings; like all of Lloyd’s artistic relations, the guitarist prefers to listen first and then play. He takes his time and leaves plenty of space for others. It was a beautiful first date.
While this reporter could not stay for the final encore, the Montreal crowd gushed about the trio’s version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a touching tribute to Levon Helm, the late drummer for The Band.
In introducing the evening, Lloyd commented, “We are dreamers, and dreams are bigger than our memories. But I like the now.” For three nights, he and his friends provided Montreal with beautiful dreams, indeed.