The life of Charles Lloyd has truly been the proverbial "long, strange trip."
The master reedman experienced an unmatched level of popularity for a jazz musician in the late 1960s. Lloyd (b. 1938) and his quartet, which featured a young Keith Jarrett on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums, packed clubs and captivated festival audiences worldwide. Voted Jazzman of the Year by Down Beat Magazine in 1967, Lloyd was for a time the darling of both critics and fans. The Charles Lloyd Quartet played universities and the ballrooms and auditoriums of the psychedelic rock circuit, sharing stages with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Byrds, and other 1960s psych-rock icons.
Lloyd's "love vibrations communicated a message of unity, openness, and acceptance to counterculture youth. In the turbulent late 1960s, when young people sought a messenger to speak the truth they were seeking, Lloyd was their "friendly big brother and their pied piper. His music was warm, inviting, and peaceful, unlike the abrasive, aggressive protest statements made by many of his 1960s contemporaries. It provided a sonic backdrop and soothing soundtrack for a generation of alienated youth.
After reaching this early pinnacle of success, Lloyd's activity decreased significantly. However, his career in the 1970s is consistently misunderstood; his "retirement was never as dramatic as many like to think. Drugs, depression, frustration with the recording industry, and increased interest in his developing spirituality inspired periods of reclusion. He toured and performed less frequently, though he remained busy with studio work and never totally put his horn down.
Jazz fans lost track of Lloyd in the 1970s, as he was channeling the majority of his musical energy outside of the normal jazz realm. Inspired by his work in the psychedelic circuit he recorded folk-rock records of his own, including Moon Man (Kapp, 1970) and Warm Waters (Kapp, 1971). A common interest in Transcendental Meditation sparked a friendship and collaborations with the Beach Boys. Mike Love and Al Jardine provided vocals, arrangements, and compositions on Lloyd's early 1970s albums and Lloyd's deft flute work is prominently heard on the Beach Boys' Surf's Up (Reprise, 1971). He even joined their touring band in 1977. Lloyd's services were also requested in the studio by groups such as The Doors, Canned Heat, and former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn.
In the early 1980s Lloyd briefly appeared back in the jazz public eye, introducing the world to a young French pianist named Michel Petrucciani. Lloyd's return resulted in universal excitement and critical praise. Once he felt Petrucciani had gotten the recognition he deserved, Lloyd again retreated to his home in serene Big Sur, California for the majority of the decade.
In 1989, Charles Lloyd began recording for ECM records, a move that catapulted him back into the mainstream jazz world, where he has remained ever since. Every record has been released with utmost anticipation and received rave reviews. As he has throughout his entire career, Lloyd has assembled groups with only the "best of the best jazz musiciansit is seen as an honor to play in the band of one of the music's elder statesmen. Brad Mehldau, Larry Abercrombie, Geri Allen, Bobo Stenson, Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, and Dave Holland are a few of the many musicians who have performed with Lloyd on his ECM recordings. This alone demonstrates the respect and admiration Lloyd has earned over the course of his forty-seven year career. Are there better qualified and more astute critics than the musicians themselves?
As the first decade of the 21st century approaches its conclusion, Charles Lloyd is again on top of the jazz world. Within the last five years, he has been featured on the cover of most major jazz publications in circulation. Last summer he headlined the Monterey Jazz Festival in honor of the fortieth anniversary of his legendary live album Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1966). When touring both the United States and Europe, concert halls are consistently at full capacity and he receives never-ending praise from both critics and fans alike.
The question needs posed: after he all but disappeared from the eyes and ears of jazz fans for so many years, how has he been able to climb back to the top?
The answer, though multi-layered, is easily explained. First, Lloyd's music is extraordinarily diverse. It contains specific elements that appeal to a wide range of music lovers. Lloyd grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, his earliest gigs with blues bands of masters including Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Ace, and Roscoe Gordon (which featured singer Bobby "Blue Bland). The blues saturates Lloyd's music of today in its emotionally directed soulfulness. Like the blues singer, his playing is instinctive, sincere, and affecting. You don't just hear Charles Lloydyou feel him.