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Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity

John Kelman By

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Charles Lloyd
Arrows Into Infinity
ECM Records
2014

It's rare to have an opportunity to see a music film in both the theatre and the comfort of your own home, but a serendipitous invite to the 2013 Jazztopad Festival in Wrocław, Poland not only provided the chance to hear saxophonist Charles Lloyd premiering a new work, commissioned by the festival, with an entirely new group; it also presented, in a movie theatre, Arrows Into Infinity, a nearly two-hour look at Lloyd's life and career, directed by his longtime life partner, manager and co-producer Dorothy Darr, along with Jeffery Morse. The screening was just one of a number of films presented by the festival but was the clear best of the bunch—which, given the run of films presented, is high praise—a labor of love for Darr and a window into the life of a musician for whom a search for the unattainable has been a constant touchstone.

It's especially significant that the film has been released, for home viewing—and in both Blu-Ray and DVD formats—by ECM Records,the label that gave Lloyd a new start in 1990 with the release of Fish Out of Water. In the ensuing quarter century, Lloyd has released sixteen albums—the most recent being Hagar's Song (2013), a duo recording with the pianist of his eight year-old quartet, Jason Moran—plus a box set, Quartets (2013), which collects his first five recordings for the label, all featuring Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. With ECM releasing Arrows Into Infinity there's both a continuity and the assurance of a visually appealing package: there is also a 20-page booklet that, in addition to a full discography of Lloyd's recordings for the label, features notes by Darr and Morse, as well as a handful of color and black and white images.

"It's high thinking; it's about elevation. You can't shoot an arrow into infinity if you're in constant motion; you have to pull the bow back...then the arrow can fly," says Lloyd in the film's introduction, and it's a thread that runs through a film filled with compelling live footage and interviews, the two coming together to tell the story of a life that began in 1938, with Lloyd's birth in Memphis, TN taking place just a year after the great flood of 1937 that poured over 176 billion tons of water across the 207,000 square miles of the Mississippi watershed. "When my mother was pregnant," Lloyd says in a relatively recent Japanese interview clip, "there was a big flood in Memphis, and there was this thing that was set up for me to come."

The film runs generally chronologically, with recent interview footage from Lloyd interspersed with older clips, including a television interview from the mid-'60s, when Lloyd was leading the quartet which also introduced Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette to the world. That quartet, which released best-selling albums including Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1966) and In the Soviet Union (Atlantic, 1967), was the perfect confluence of remarkable musicianship, superb writing and a time when a booming audience of young listeners were unencumbered by predispositions and the industry-generated, lowest-common-denominator tastes that would make such a thing an impossibility, even for an artist as talented as Lloyd, in the new millennium.

In addition to documenting Lloyd's remarkable ascent into superstardom in the mid-to-late '60s, it also covers his almost unprecedented decision, at the height of his popularity, to withdraw from the music industry and spend years in relative isolation in the mountain-filled area of Big Sur, in California, where his spiritual search continued. There's some touching footage of his first return to music with Michel Petrucciani, the French pianist born with ostegenesis imperfecta, a chronic condition that, causing brittle bones, a short stature and premature death in 1999 at the age of 36 and, of course, the saxophonist's full-on return with ECM. Anyone who has met Lloyd knows he's a natural storyteller, and so it's no surprise that, in Arrows Infinity, he provides plenty of insight into both the course of his life and the lifelong search that has driven him from one success to the next.

Given that Lloyd's '60s stardom and interest in all things musical meant he rubbed shoulders with everyone from The Beach Boys (with whom he toured at one point), Bob Dylan, The Band and others in the rock world, it's appropriate that the film includes some terrific footage from across the musical spectrum, with everyone from Herbie Hancock and mentor Buddy Collette (a particularly touching interview, relatively recent, with Lloyd also present) to The Doors' John Densmore, drummer Jim Keltner, The Band's Robbie Robertson and, of course, ECM's Manfred Eicher. Beyond live footage with his mid-'60s group, there are clips of live performances from throughout his career, right through to his current quartet with Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, along with his Sangam trio with Harland and tabla master Zakir Hussain.

There's also some of Darr's filming from Lloyd's at-home sessions with Billy Higgins, documented on Which Way is East (ECM, 2004), made just four months before the drummer's passing at the age of 65. But what is also made very clear—and in a way that doesn't feel at all wrong for the film's co-director—is just how important Lloyd's relationship with Darr has been since the two became life partners after Lloyd's first marriage failed. Darr is, clearly, the perfect partner for Lloyd, someone who truly understands his endless search for something towards which music and spiritual pursuits have brought him nearer, as the years have progressed, but something which he will likely never attain, at least in this mortal coil. And that's as it should be; if Lloyd were to truly find that for which he has been searching for 76 years now, then his life would well and truly be over—and the world is certainly not ready to lose Lloyd yet.

If anything, while being of an age when other jazz legends are passing, Lloyd seems to be both healthy and, certainly—based on both his Jazztopad performance and a three-night By Invitation run at the 2013 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal—completely focused and at the absolute top of his game. While such a film might be considered premature, given that Lloyd's life and story are far from over, Arrows Into Infinity is, instead, a rarity that celebrates a life while the artist is still with us---a story, beautifully told and thoroughly captivating, that in no way suggests there is an end in sight. If anything, Arrows Into Infinity, despite wrapping up on an end point both beautiful and conclusive, leaves the impression that, for Lloyd, his life's goal remains and that he will, along with Darr, continue reaching for the unreachable, and looking to attain the unattainable for many more years to come.

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