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Charles Lloyd: Crossing the Waters Wide

C. Andrew Hovan By

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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 it—kind 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, Jr.. 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.

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