Charles Lloyd: Crossing the Waters Wide
“ You know, Bird discovered the atom and Trane smashed it and I was out in California with Ornette and Eric Dolphy and so that was a rich heritage to be around. ”
From the time of "love-ins" and tie-dyed shirts to today's current jazz renaissance, Charles Lloyd has played a part in the multifaceted history of the music. His series of Atlantic sides in the '60s transfixed a young and impressionable audience by way of an intoxicating fusion of mysticism, rock rhythms and jazz improvisation, while also launching the careers of both Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. The following decade would find Lloyd playing the role of mentor in fostering the career of the late Michel Petrucciani. Since his comeback in the '80s, Lloyd has built upon his successes through an exceptional series of recordings for ECM, with his current release, The Water Is Wide, rightfully gathering critical plaudits as one of his most profound statements. A man of great wisdom and spirituality, Lloyd graciously offered his responses to my questions during our recent conversation.
All About Jazz: When did you first get involved with music and playing the saxophone?
Charles Lloyd: First, I wanted to be a singer, but didn't have the voice thing. And I saw a saxophone in a parade and I knew that was what I was supposed to do. I had an uncle who had one around the house I spotted somewhere too- the pearly keys and the gold. I told my aunt then that I saw the horn in the parade and that was what I was supposed to do one day and the singing thing, well nobody dug it but me. I still think to this day that if I had had a singing voice I probably wouldn't have any peers because I just feel it so deeply and I think I could come up with something that could really nail itkind of what Lady Day did and Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Jesse Norman, Al Green, Otis, and all that.
AAJ: Do you think your Memphis upbringing played a role in your development as a musician?
CL: Yes, Memphis was pregnant with elixir and music. It was all over the place. Modernity was in the air. There was the blues and the church and the church was a mixture of Pentecostal style and the Catholic thing. Also, there was some Native American stuff, because my grandmother was coming out of that. Music was very much in the air and you heard records all the time. You heard good stuff on the radio and there were all the blues guys around there too and I played with them as a kid. You know, Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker and all that kind of stuff. Of course, I went to school with Harold Mabern and Frank Strozier. Then there was Phineas Newborn. When I was around 11 or 12 he put me in his father's band with him and his brother Calvin and we played together every night for about three or four years.
AAJ: Your work with Chico Hamilton, especially on his Impulse recordings, is particularly striking. Tell us about working with Hamilton.
CL: When I joined Chico he had the group with cello and I played clarinet and alto and flute. It was kind of quasi-chamber jazz. But I was ready to sing the song of the Hyperions, you know, I was a cadet and I couldn't stay in that format. So I told him I was leaving and he said if I stayed we'd reform the group around what I wanted to do and I'd be musical director. So that was too good of an offer and I couldn't refuse, so I brought in Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson and we began to "kick it" and I was able to write music for that. Gabor brought in the Bartok and the gypsies and I turned him on to Robert Johnson and Trane and Ravi Shankar and all that stuff and we started bending the notes around and we started looking around corners and hearing up and down and stuff. He was Pisces too and we were very tight and very close and it was a beautiful, beautiful relationship.
AAJ: Some have said that they hear in your early work the decided influence of John Coltrane. Was he indeed an influence on you?
CL: Most definitely, Coltrane was a big influence. But what you must also understand about me was that I was influenced by Prez and Bird and Mr. Hawkins before I heard Trane. The thing about Trane for me was that he brought that spiritual quality so strong to the music and yet he brought the whole tradition with it. That just knocks me out because basically I'm a blues man trying to sing a spiritual song and so I'm from the church and the Hyperions too. You know, Bird discovered the atom and Trane smashed it and I was out in California with Ornette and Eric Dolphy and so that was a rich heritage to be around.
AAJ: Did you know Coltrane personally?
CL: Yes, I did. He was very beautiful, a very sweet soul, very gracious to all, was not a cavalier. He was the personification of a big, beautiful spirit. He had huge love in his heart for humanity and he was into the saxophone non-stop. He'd go into the back room at the Five Spot and be practicing and I'd say, "Trane, you sound so beautiful tonight" and he'd say, "No, Charles, I just can't find it tonight." As far as I was concerned he had found the hideouts of all the deities and it was church in there whenever he played and he lifted everybody up so much. I can never say enough about him and his influence and he was also very encouraging and he spoke to me very highly about my playing, which I thought was kind of ludicrous because he was so great.
AAJ: What was the impetus for forming your first quartet in the mid-'60s?
CL: What happened was I was a young man in New York and actually I had met Keith Jarrett in Boston and Jack DeJohnette was living in New York. The first group I actually took on the road was with Gabor and Albert Stinson and Pete LaRoca. And I got a call on the road from Keith Jarrett. He found me somewhere and said that he was playing with Art Blakey, but he was unhappy and he said he wanted to play with me. I said then, "When I get back to New York give me a call and we'll get together." And Jack was always bugging me to play with him. Jack had been playing with Jackie McLean and he'd always come around to my gigs and he was kind of rough and loud. He'd say, "Baby, I wanna play with you." He'd call me at four o'clock in the morning and say, "Man I gotta play with you." I'd say, "Well, you're going about it the wrong way." So finally I gave him a chance and of course he turned out to be very tasty. The first time we "hit" with that formation, with Keith, Jack, and Cecil, was at the Left Bank Jazz Society down in Baltimore and the seas opened up and the people testified and it seemed to be the right chemistry when I put that band together. Cannonball was always singing the praises of Europe and I was interested in trying the European thing and so we made some tours with very little to no money. But, it built fast and people took to us and by '66, when we played Antibes, people went crazy. Then after playing Monterey in '66 and recording Forest Flower, then I went to San Francisco. There was a group there kind of like Belushi and those guys on Saturday Night Live called The Committee Theatre and they used to come around to hear me play every night and they loved our group. They told me there was this place called The Fillmore and they told Bill Graham about me and he invited me over one Sunday afternoon and Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield were playing. I was supposed to play a half hour set and they wouldn't let us off the stage for about an hour and a half and then Bill started booking us. You know, the Grateful Dead and the Airplane wanted to be on the bill with us.
AAJ: After the great run of success with your quartet in the '60s, you were much less visible during the following decade. What endeavors were you involved in during that period?
CL: By the end of the '60s I was at a place where I had to regroup and take those lesson to heart that Booker Little had taught me. So I went back into the woods, studied the sacred tablets, and got deep off into studying all the spiritual traditions that I could. I was trying to work on my character, as Booker had told me, because he left at such an early age and one never knows when one is going to be called home like that. My home has always been in the music and it was just a chance to work on myself and Big Sur was wonderful. My nearest neighbors were a mile and a half on either side and I had many years of quiet solitude. I didn't know how long it would take, but I knew I wanted to get deeper into my spiritual life.
AAJ: What brought you back onto the jazz scene in the '80s?
CL: This little guy, Michel Petrucciani, showed up there and that was very strange to me. But the elders had always helped me when I was a youngster, so I took him around the world for a couple of years and got him started. Then I tried to go back to my retreat, but by then I was bitten by the cobra again and I had to play the music. I had a near death experience in '86 and after that my health returned, so I got involved with Bobo Stenson, this pianist from Scandanavia.
AAJ: Tell us about your most recent recording project, The Water is Wide.
CL: Everybody worked so selflessly and I have nothing but praise and for me it was a great joy making this recording. I'm very high from it and the high is a genuine one now that comes from the simplicity of the Creator bringing grace to this life that's been one of ups and downs and struggles, but I've always tried to be honest in my pursuit. I hadn't played with Larry Grenadier, but then when we started playing, Larry and I brought it and he was like the crown crest jewel for me because he was discovery. It was such a delight and so touching. To hear Brad Mehldau play so touchingly and so beautifully and so simply and deep on the recording and to have served this recording, it's just a wonder. The thing about John Abercrombie is I get to hear him every night on tour and it's a special thing and then, of course, to play with Master Higginshe lays the magic carpet out there. He's got moves you can't even see and it seems minimal but that's the game, getting back to simplicity. You can feel him and he just lifts you up and how could you not soar? And this recording is not something I'm trying to do "show biz" with or anything like that. You probably will never hear this formation together because everybody does what they do but it's just for me a special out of time offering that I wanted to offer.