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.
Though the blues envelopes all he plays, the majority of Lloyd's music is an extension of the 1960s modal explorations of his youthit is similar but certainly not regurgitated. Lloyd's playing is never predictable. He surprises his listeners in every solo he plays, leaving them awed at his power, range, technical facility, and tenderness. Free jazz enthusiasts find excitement in the wild abandonment and energetic yet intimate communication achieved by his groups.
Particularly notable is his Sangam trio. Featuring Lloyd on reeds, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and the dynamic young drummer Eric Harland, this group unites jazz and Indian classical music with elegance and integrity. There is no gimmickry hereit is an authentic, unpretentious fusion of two disparate and distinct traditions. Sangam's performances are astounding and virtuosicfilled with high energy, telepathic communication between the three men while retaining the warmth and mysticism that have characterized all phases of Lloyd's musical journey.
Lloyd's music is complex and advanced, yet even in its most adventurous moments it remains accessible. He is one of the purest melodists alive today, blessed with the ability to sing through his instrument and tug at the emotions of all who hear him. After hearing Billie Holiday early in his life, he yearned to become a singer, but realized he did not have the voice. He soon got his first saxophone, vowing to express himself and sing passionately through his horn. Like that of a vocalist, his music weaves through a wide gamut of emotionsreflective, joyous, dark, mellow, and reachingand it always stays grounded by retaining its earthy folkiness.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is no surprise that Lloyd's audience is demographically diverse and well-distributed throughout. Look around a Charles Lloyd show and you will see hardcore jazz fanatics young and old, teenagers, college students, Americans, Europeans, Indians, first and second generation hippies, rock fans, hipsters, neo-beatniks and more. It is a marvelous sight and a pertinent cultural rarity, if for only one night, to see people unite spiritually and be transported by the music of one man.
There is a genuine universality in the music of Charles Lloyd. He acts as a conduit of the varied experiences of life, channeling Zen-like peacefulness and understanding to his listeners. His dedication to the music is stronger than ever and his approach is more purposeful. Passionate and sincere, each breath blown through his instrument has deep significance. This truly comes to light when seeing him perform. Audiences can not only hear, but see and feel his intent as his presence on stage is magically captivating and utterly heart warming.
As he approaches his seventieth year, Charles Lloyd has solidified his place as one of the few living jazz giants. His popularity and reverence has equaled if not surpassed that of his classic quartet in the late 1960s. He has again surrounded himself with outstanding musicians who are sensitive and responsive to his distinctive musical perspective. Today, Lloyd's playing is inspired, mature, and deeply heartfelt as he forges onward and reaches for transcendence.
Charles Lloyd, Sangam (ECM, 2006)
Charles Lloyd, Jumping the Creek (ECM, 2005)
Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins, Which Way is East (ECM, 2004)
Charles Lloyd, Hyperion With Higgins (ECM, 2001)
Charles Lloyd, Voice in the Night (ECM, 1999)
Charles Lloyd, Canto (ECM, 1997)
Charles Lloyd, The Call (ECM, 1993)
Charles Lloyd, Acoustic Masters I (Atlantic, 1993)
Charles Lloyd, Fish Out of Water (ECM, 1990)
Charles Lloyd, A Night in Copenhagen (Blue Note, 1983)
Charles Lloyd, Soundtrack (Atlantic, 1969)
Charles Lloyd, Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1966)
Top Photo: Ben Johnson
Bottom Photo: Jos L. Knaepen