Charles Lloyd: Surrendering to the Higher Power

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Idolatry has become a fact of life for the saxophonist, flutist, NEA Jazz Master and self-described dreamer.

(Photo: Dorothy Darr)

Flying on an early summer night in a season of tricky air travel, Charles Lloyd’s plane from Ottawa, Canada, touched down in New Jersey dangerously close to showtime. Catching a car from Newark Airport, he reached Sony Hall in Midtown Manhattan with only minutes to gather his bandmates backstage for their pre-performance prayer.

No matter. The band cast a spell from the moment it hit the stage, presenting two contrasting sets that held the overflow crowd of more than 500 spellbound — and propelled a post-performance rush of cellphone-wielding fans to the edge of the proscenium, where they hoped to grab a close-up photo of their 84-year-old idol.

Idolatry has become a fact of life for the saxophonist, flutist, NEA Jazz Master and self-described dreamer. Known from the first as an artist who broke down barriers — of race, as a young man of color collaborating with white musicians in his hometown of Memphis; of genre, as a counterculture jazzman making his mark on the Fillmore rock stage — he has only fed the adoration of the masses with a late-in-life association with the Blue Note label.

That association has yielded a clutch of albums, most recently, Trios: Chapel, the first in a series of three discs in a similar format, Trio Of Trios, to be released in the coming months. From it, Lloyd drew material for the opening set, conjuring a succession of powerfully restrained conversations with guitarist Bill Frisell and Reuben Rogers, Lloyd’s longtime bassist, who was substituting on this evening for the COVID-sidelined Thomas Morgan, bassist on the album.

The vehicles chosen ranged from Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count,” a haunting deathbed statement that the threesome deftly transformed into a life-affirming message, to Lloyd’s “Beyond Darkness,” with its slippery sequencing of chords under Lloyd’s looping alto flute — the only time he forsook the tenor saxophone all night. It ultimately proved an intoxicating mystery. (Frisell, in a post-concert phone call, confessed: “It’s not even clear to me where the melody is.”)

No less heady was the second set, on which pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland joined the fray. The two ratcheted up the rhythmic content and, from the downbeat of the set’s opener, “Dream Weaver,” sparked memories of Lloyd’s Classic Quartet from the 1960s, with Keith Jarrett on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Like the Lloyd of old, the current incarnation — an inveterate swimmer and devoted meditator — possesses monster breath control that he musters in the service of a singular phraseology.

But it may have been an unplanned moment that best revealed the depth of Lloyd’s authority. Midway through the set, he added a piece the band had not run through during sound check, “Blow Wind.” Drawn from Athens Concert, a lush live album from 2010, the piece was familiar to the players, save for Frisell. And save for Frisell, they fell naturally into its easy ebb-and-flow. The guitarist, on the other hand, spun his moment of uncertainty into a swirl of disarming intervals so cleverly arrayed that they threatened to alter the piece’s direction until a bemused Lloyd reentered and smoothed the way home. Lean, lithe and more lucid than men a quarter of his age — near the show’s end, he quoted onstage at length from Hindu scripture. Lloyd proved transcendent throughout.

Standing in a darkened Sony Hall, with the crowd cleared, Lloyd cut an even more imposing figure. Allowing a practical side to emerge, he quizzed his minions about the next stop on the tour — a festival outside of London, where he would again be greeted with adoration. And then, he sought to convey his gratitude to the fans. The positive vibrations, he explained, helped sustain him as he confronted the problems of the world before returning to the safe harbor of his home in the California hills by the sea, where he lives in communion with the birds.

“I was thinking about pulling up the moat,” he said, a sly smile coming over his improbably youthful face. “But every time I think about that, I come out and play and people are so lovely.”

In another life, after being laid low by some high times in the ’60s — where he succumbed to temptation, he said, following his million-selling album Forest Flower — he famously decamped to the beach for more than a decade of contemplation. A month before the recent Sony Hall concert, firmly ensconced at home, he was, by his own account, again “in retreat.” Yet he was gamely engaging via Zoom for this interview, trying not to be distracted by a bird that had alighted on a ledge outside his window. Like another local bird — one who sings to him in “house-building” mode, he said, mimicking its pecking sound — this one had its song. And he had to learn it, for it might give up a secret.

“I go hiking in the mountains and hills around our property, then swim underwater and teach myself to breathe underwater,” he explained. “And then I go to the pianoforte and have these fragments and structures that come to me, and I try to figure out how they work. What I’m doing is these fractals. I want to see where they belong — who they’re singing to.”

While Lloyd long ago gave up his aspirations to express ideas through his vocal apparatus, the primacy of song for him remains an existential matter. And he is constantly searching for others of like mind. In 2013, the search took him to Frisell, or, more accurately, Frisell to him. The occasion was the Montreal Jazz Festival, where Lloyd, the artist-in-residence that summer, was playing in a duo with Moran.

“Bill heard us then and said, ‘There’s another way to go with this stuff.’ So we invited Bill to join us in a trio. Bill came out and it was like singing together. It is mystical, but it’s not something we can talk about. It’s something we can be about.”

“I thought we would have a rehearsal or something,” Frisell recalled. “I got to the hotel and got a message. It said, ‘Charles asked you to come to his room to talk about the music.’ The first thing he said was, ‘I’m really looking forward to singing with you.’

“That really sums it up for me. I can’t sing, but when I play, that’s what it is. For me, he’s one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard. When he plays a melody, he’s really playing the melody. You can hear the song in everything he plays. It’s a natural thing, not about reading the chart or about playing the right notes. We’re just singing together.”

The line is straight between the 2013 Montreal trio and the one that recorded Trios: Chapel five years later. To be sure, the particulars differ — one trio session at a Canadian festival, the other in an empty Elizabeth Huth Coates Chapel in San Antonio, Texas. In Montreal, Frisell was the newcomer; in San Antonio, Morgan held that distinction — a dubious one, perhaps, given Lloyd’s predilection for trial-by-fire auditions. The proof, however, was in the playing.

“I’d never played with Thomas Morgan,” Lloyd explained, “but Bill held him in high esteem. I asked Reuben Rogers, ‘Can Morgan play?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ So I invited Morgan to play with Bill and me. He’s special. And he’s all music. Bill told me he and Thomas Morgan had a session where they listened to all my records, so I knew something could happen, and it did.”

The irony of Rogers having to replace Morgan at Sony Hall — the single New York concert planned around the album’s release — was not lost on Frisell. Nor was the onstage dynamic. “There’s a completely different chemical reaction,” he said, noting that Lloyd and Rogers were musical partners of 18 years.

The relationship of personality, he said, can be complex: “Outwardly, you could say Thomas is very quiet, doesn’t talk much. Reuben is much more outgoing. But once you get going in the music, Reuben is super-sensitive. Thomas is big and powerful and assertive.” The complexity adds up to unpredictability — and that, in Lloyd’s sphere, can spur creation.

“You want to be naïve,” Frisell said, “where you’re not sure what’s going to happen. That’s one of the things Charles has been so great at as an example — how to stay in that frame of mind, the Buddhist ‘beginner’s mind.’”

Lloyd’s penchant for bandstand tryouts, which reached a peak in 2013, is bearing fruit today. In the months after bringing on Frisell in Montreal, he hired pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, a longtime associate of Frisell’s, following an onstage audition at a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles. Out of that encounter has come the quintet the Marvels, one of Lloyd’s most productive ensembles and the Jazz Group of the Year in the 2022 DownBeat Critics Poll.

Around the same time, Lloyd hired pianist Gerald Clayton after a three-night tryout at the Dakota in Minneapolis. “Gerald used to come around on my European tours, sitting in the wings, hungry to play with me. And I could tell. So one time we had a spot where Jason [Moran] couldn’t show up. I wanted to try him out. Reuben [Rogers] was for it and Eric [Harland] wasn’t, but I did it anyway. And it was a love fest.”

For Clayton, 38, that engagement has yielded gigs with Lloyd in a variety of formats, including the group that plays on Trios: Ocean. Out Sept. 23, the disc will feature Clayton and Anthony Wilson on guitar in a session recorded in September 2020 at Lloyd’s local venue, the Lobero Theatre, in Santa Barbara. The theater has a “sacred, ghostlike energy,” Clayton said, a vibe heightened by pandemic jitters.

But, Clayton said, such details did not faze Lloyd: “He’s totally comfortable with performing an hour-and-a-half of music and still hearing an entire orchestra within whatever the configuration is. He always brings that same energy, and the ability to be so at peace with situations that are a little more exposed and vulnerable is really profound and impressive.”

Similarly impressed was guitarist Julian Lage, who, along with tablaist and singer Zakir Hussain, recorded the third in the series, Trios: Sacred Thread. For Lage, the session, which, like the one at the Lobero, was convened in September 2020, served as a kind of homecoming. It was held not far from his hometown of Santa Rosa, California, at the site of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, where, 22 years ago, a 12-year-old Lage first sat in with Lloyd.

By that time, Lage’s talent was widely known as the result of an Oscar-nominated documentary. But looking back, Lloyd recalled that, when an organizer asked him to allow Lage to sit in, he was skeptical: “I said, ‘What can he do?’ She said, ‘Well, he can bring it.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll let him play, and see what he can do.’ So he came up, played his ass off.”

Since then, Lage has joined Lloyd onstage ocassionally, including at the elder’s legendary 80th birthday party at the Lobero. Documented on 8: Kindred Spirits (Live From The Lobero), it featured Clayton, Rogers, Harland, organist Booker T. Jones and Blue Note President Don Was on bass. By design, it was a large and loose affair. But, in Lage’s telling, Lloyd expresses himself especially well in the more intimate setting of a trio.

“Charles in that situation has an incredible clarity of voice,” he said. “Everything he stands for is coming through his horn in unbridled fashion.”

Trios: Sacred Thread, out Nov. 18, is not Lloyd’s first trio effort with Hussain. That came after the death of drummer Billy Higgins in 2001. Lloyd and Higgins knew each other from 1950s Los Angeles jam sessions that attracted the likes of Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. Nearly half a century later, the two collaborated on a double album of duets with subcontinent influences, Which Way Is East.

The album, recorded four months before Higgins’ death, would be his last. And when he died — or, as Lloyd put it, “had enough sense to get out of here” — Lloyd, still in an Indo-American frame of mind, hooked up with Mumbai-born Hussain and Houston-born Harland for a tribute concert at the Lobero. The trio generated wide interest and, in due course, an album and a working unit, Sangam.

Trios: Sacred Thread offers an equally fresh, and potentially more liberating, take on East-West synthesis. By adding harmonic ballast and a melodic foil, Lage’s guitar, tempered by Hussain’s vocal incantations and tabla designs, provides structure and cultural context in which Lloyd can freely sing his cosmic blues.

And that he does. Consider “Nachiketa’s Lament,” which Lloyd returns in moments of crisis: in the early months of the Russian invasion of Crimea, in Lviv, Ukraine, with a quartet that included Clayton; or in the early days of the pandemic lockdown, alone, wandering the wilderness near his home, Transylvanian tárogató in hand.

So this expression of sorrow by Nachiketa — a boy from Indian lore who was told he could cheat death by renouncing worldly desires — was delivered with urgency. Today, the pandemic may be waning, but war, at home and abroad, rages — and the message is no less urgent. Lloyd, it seems, won’t be “pulling up the moat” anytime soon.

“This stuff has been hurting me too much,” he explained. “But Dorothy [Darr, his life partner] said, ‘Try to keep positive because you’re on a mission,’ and when you’re on a mission you have to honor that, and you can’t have personal preferences. When you’re in service, you have to surrender to the higher power. And then you have to get out of the way.” DB




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