At 80, Charles Lloyd Continues to Explore

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Saxophonist Charles Lloyd celebrates his 80th birthday with a show at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on March 15. His ensemble included pianist Gerald Clayton and a few other guests.

(Photo: David Bazemore)

When he was in his 60s, the linguistically limber veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd likened himself to a “junior elder,” attesting to his deft dance between the wisdom and fashion-averse qualities of a seasoned player and a younger spirit in motion.

On March 15, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Lloyd put on a concert in his current hometown of Santa Barbara, California, in his go-to venue there—the inviting and historic Lobero Theatre. Lloyd demonstrated that while he now officially has attained an age associated with true elders, the youthful verve and wistfully innocent elements of his persona still are intact.

The most recent chapter in Lloyd’s career has seen him both retracing his roots and exploring new ideas. Three years ago, he was anointed a NEA Jazz Master, moved from ECM to the Blue Note label and broadened his palette with The Marvels, Lloyd’s polyglot ensemble that includes guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.

On his birthday, Lloyd brought along a group of associates, including organist Booker T. Jones—who tethers the bandleader to his childhood in Memphis—as well as the remarkably flexible guitarist Julian Lage. The show seemed strategically planned for the Lobero, where Lloyd has played 17 times since settling in Santa Barbara during the early ’80s. The venue’s also where the saxophonist recorded his well-received Sangam in 2004.

As a foundation, though, Lloyd was backed by his New Quartet, featuring the solid and malleable rhythm team of drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers, the increasingly beguiling and nimble pianistic voice of Gerald Clayton, as well as Lage. Despite the fleeting and artful inclusion of the late John Abercrombie in Lloyd’s band in the ’90s, the sound of guitar still can be a bit alienating for those accustomed to Lloyd’s nearly 50-year tradition of running an acoustic, piano-based quartet. Lage, though, is the right musician for the task of integrating his instrument into Lloyd’s legacy.

The leader himself was vibrant and present during the various expressive routes taken during the nearly three-hour concert, but in a soft-edged mode. There was a kind of unhurried, vaporous flow to his playing and a generally impressionistic air, even during his out and r&b-ish excursions—whether on a half-hour suite-like invention during the first set or when Jones later lured the band into the seductive charms of “Green Onions.”

Passin’ Thru, Lloyd’s 2017 album, is a live number celebrating the 10th anniversary of his New Quartet. In synch with that nostalgic-leaning affair, the opening set at the Lobero wove its way through explorations of tunes heard on the album—including compositions dating to the early ’60s, like “Dream Weaver” and the title track.

After intermission, the musical agenda changed as Jones shifted the palette toward a more soulful vibe, opening with a reverent ambience on the hymn “Abide With Me” (which Lloyd memorably played with Frisell at the venue). The keyboardist then moved to the piano to play a short, elliptical song—basking in jazz harmonies—which he wrote as a birthday present for Lloyd.

The one true surprise guest for the evening was Don Was, a musician, producer and, of course, current head of Lloyd’s record label. As the shades-donning Was took the stage and picked up the bass, Lloyd turned around in mock-surprise. He seized upon the moment to call up one of his favorite anecdotes from ’50s-era Los Angeles, when he knew and played with Ornette Coleman.

“Sometimes I get confused, like when Ornette ran over his plastic alto because he was confused with reverse and forward,” Lloyd said, describing Coleman’s post-performance state. “We had been playing music [that day].”

Getting lost in the music long has been the goal for artists like Coleman and Lloyd.

As an encore to this special presentation, Lloyd played “Forest Flower”—one of the best-known tunes he’s penned, but rarely plays, shying away from the taint of what he views as crowd pandering. As a brief, lyrical coda, the saxophonist floated his way in and out of the pop ballad “You Are So Beautiful,” with a soft, singing style on his horn. Concert-goers again were reminded that one of Lloyd’s truest virtues, at any stage of his career, is his ability to “sing” through his instrument. DB


On Sale Now
May 2018
Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran
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