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A Fireside Chat with Charles Lloyd


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I know the winds of grace are always blowing. I must raise my sails high enough to catch the breeze.
Spirituality is often feigned and frequently copied for its cache value. The figure most commonly associated with spirituality is John Coltrane. And his divinity is authenticated by his associations (Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Burrell) and the indisputable gospel of the Church of St. John Coltrane. A commanding presence, Charles Lloyd (unedited and in his own words), an erstwhile disciple, has matured to emerge as a messenger of the music. Paralleling Trane, the company Lloyd has kept (Billy Higgins) ultimately validates his spirituality.

All About Jazz: What is the legacy of Billy Higgins?

Charles Lloyd: Billy's legacy was his undaunted love for all of humanity, right to the end. He expressed that love with every drum beat, every brush stroke, and every breath in his song. Master Higgins and I met in 1956 when I was student at USC. We were both still teenagers. I had a group that would gig around town and Billy was in that group, as well as Bobby Hutcherson, Don Cherry, Terry Trotter, Scotty LaFaro. The bond of friendship between Billy and myself was equal to the bond in the music, there was never a false move in either area - only love. I remember the first concert Billy and I did after his transplant was at the Warner Theater in Long Beach. After we finished playing, Billy said to me, "I didn't know you felt that way about it. We're going to have to stop dating and go steady." He opened up all the floodgates of creativity.

AAJ: Which Way Is East is an intimate duo recording with Higgins. Was it initially meant to be a record?

CL: Although neither of us approached it as such, it turned out to be our last conversation in music. The fact that it took place at home in a relaxed and comfortable environment is a major factor to the degree of intimacy you hear. For a long time I thought it was too personal. But as I shared it with different musician friends, I became more encouraged to give it a public life. Geri Allen helped me a lot when she said, "The world needs this." But as an idea, we had been exploring it for years. In 1997, we did three duo concerts; Seattle at the Museum of Natural History, Healdsburg at the Raven Theater and the Masonic Hall in San Francisco. I thank the forward vision of John Galbraith in Seattle, Jessica Felix in Healdsburg and Randal Kline in San Francisco for believing in us so strongly.

Unfortunately, as much as Billy and I wanted to explore that further from the bandstand, no other promoter accepted the idea. The patent response was "maybe next year." But we were in the now, so we knew that if we were going to develop this further, it would have to be in private and for ourselves. Billy had intended to come up and spend some time with me in Santa Barbara so we could do that, but touring schedules and other obligations always got in the way. Time has a way of moving ahead, regardless. All of a sudden it was the fall of 2000 and his health was starting to decline. Billy and Bharati were very tight, and he kept telling her, "I'm coming up. There's something I need to do with Charles." So he and I began to discuss what we might do to capture our meeting. At first, I thought of setting up in a church that has great acoustics, but canceled that idea as it was cold and damp there and it would not have been comfortable for Billy. Finally, he arrived in the dark of January downpour. He had brought with him every instrument he owned, which was many - drum kit, hand drums, guimbris, Syrian instruments, guitar. In preparation for his arrival, I had taken out my alto saxophone. That was the instrument I was playing when we had met 45 years earlier and I wanted to revisit the experience with him. He called it my secret weapon. We were really thinking of the recording aspect more as a reference for us. Getting together in my living room was like being in a laboratory. We were in an exploration mode, the idea was to get together again, and keep the development going.

AAJ:< Is Eric Harland the drummer for your quartet?

CL: Eric is a special guy. I feel that Billy sent him to me. After Higgins left town, we were in NY to open at the Blue Note on 9/11. We finally did play and when we finished our two sets, there was a midnight jam band. On my way out of the club each night, I would stop and listen. My focus always went to Eric because something in his playing and spirit reminded me of Higgins. We didn't play together until over a year later when Billy Hart missed a date. So Eric has been with me now since November 2002. His growth has been quantum.

AAJ: Later in the year, you will play solo at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

CL: I have given other solo concerts, though it is something that most promoters shy away from. The first one was in 1983 at the Seattle Opera House. The second was in 1993 at St. Mary's Cathedral as part of SF Jazz. Any performance is a challenge - whatever the context, solo, duo, quartet, quintet. I can only beg the creator to give me a connection. That is where it comes from. The April 3 date in San Francisco will be an homage to Master Higgins - a very special event that will have a photo exhibit and video material from his stay with me. Eric Harland is going to come out. Robert Hurst will participate, as well as Zakir Hussain who teamed up with me for an incredible concert at Grace Cathedral in November 2001.

AAJ: With so much of today's audience subjected to the five second sound bite, have you had to augment your approach?

CL: It is not in my nature to be that analytical about my approach. Attention spans are shorter and shorter, true. The one thing I can say is that I beg the creator to let me be an open vessel. I try to get out of the way. If I put myself in there, there might not be any wind to fill my sails. I know the winds of grace are always blowing. I must raise my sails high enough to catch the breeze.

AAJ: Modest, is that a Memphis thing?

CL: As Master Higgins used say say of me, "He's got mud on his feet." But I got that on my grandfather's farm in Mississippi where I spent a lot of my infancy and childhood.

AAJ: You toured the former Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

CL: The people were repressed by politics, but their hunger for freedom made them want our music even more. I think they recognized the music was our own path to personal freedoms.

AAJ: Why the self-imposed hiatus?

CL: I was a time bomb waiting to detonate, 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. The only way I could see to do that was to withdraw completely from public life as I had known it before.

AAJ: What is the driving force behind your creativity?

CL: Spirit.

AAJ: Spirituality these days is often ignored.

CL: Spirituality is a word that is bandied about a lot. So I think it might mean different things to different people. I know that the United States of America is something of a religious country, but not necessarily a spiritual country.

AAJ: There is a certain romance residing in the comforts of Big Sur.

CL: Life in Big Sur is a way to recharge the batteries, but it is also a battle with the elements. Man is very small compared to nature. In 1983 or '84, there was a season of tremendous rain and much of our road to town to the North and eventually, to the South, washed out for many months. When we needed to go to town to get groceries and such, we had to hike to the top of our mountain and then down to a place on the far side of the massive slide in order to find a vehicle to get to town.

AAJ: Champagne wishes and caviar dreams?

CL: I dream of a peaceful world. Music is the best means I have to work on that dream. Each time I have the opportunity to play, it is another chance to tell the truth. Life on the planet has come down to such an acute degree of ADD it is terrifying. We are constantly being bombarded from all directions with information - most of it useless that serves to bifurcate the mind. I am afraid that people are going to go from birth to death and never know they were here or why they were here.

Recommended Listening:
The Charles Lloyd Quartet, Dream Weaver (Atlantic, 1966)
Charles Lloyd, Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1966)
Charles Lloyd, Canto (ECM, 1996)
Charles Lloyd, Voice in the Night (ECM, 1999)
Charles Lloyd, Lift Every Voice (ECM, 2002)
Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins, Which Way Is East (ECM, 2004)

Photo Credit
Skip Bolen

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