Charles Lloyd: The Winds Of Grace

Ian Patterson By

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I give all I can each night because it could be the last night. I just leave it all out there every night no matter where I’m playing. —Charles Lloyd
At seventy nine years young Charles Lloyd is showing no signs of slowing down. The summer months see the Memphis saxophonist/flautist on the North American and European festival circuits with his quartet of Gerald Clayton, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, followed by dates with The Marvels, Lloyd's most recent group, featuring Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Rogers and Harland.

The latter formation's baptism came with the acclaimed I Long to See You (Blue Note, 2016), and the good news is that another studio album from his latest ensemble is currently in the pipeline.

More immediate cause for celebration, however, is the release of Passin' Thru (Blue Note, 2017), a recording that captures Lloyd's New Quartet of Rogers, Harland and Jason Moran in its element at the 50th Montreux Jazz Festival in 2016, and at The Lensic in Santa Fe, New Mexico a month later.

Passin' Thru marks the tenth anniversary of Lloyd's New Quartet, which first came together in April 2007. The live album Rabo de Nube (2008)—named after Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez's tune—was a fine introductory calling card. That was followed by Mirror (2010) and Athens Concert (2011), the stunning collaboration with Greek singer Maria Farantouri, lyra player Socratis Sinopoulos and pianist Takis Fariz, recorded live at the Herodes Atticus Odeon—all on the ECM label.

Then, after a near twenty-five year association with Manfred Eicher's ECM label, Lloyd—not for the first time in his career—threw something of a curveball, by singing with Blue Note Records. It marked a return to the famous label for whom Lloyd had released one live album in the mid-1980s.

Lloyd's departure from ECM, with whom he'd recorded sixteen albums since 1989—a major legacy—was clearly a significant career decision and not one lightly taken. The details of the rupture are personal, though Lloyd states simply: "I have love and respect for Manfred, and I am sure he has love and respect for me..."

Lloyd's first release after resigning with Blue Note was the suite Wild Man Dance (Blue Note, 2015), described by Allmusic's Thom Jurek as "truly inspirational."

Jurkek's assessment was closer to the truth than he perhaps imagined. Wild Man Dance was the fruit of a commission by Jazztopad, the internationally renowned festival in Wroclaw, Poland. Festival director Piotr Turkiewicz had spent a couple of years serenading Lloyd and encouraging him to write completely new music especially for Jazztopad 2013.

Lloyd had over a year to compose the music, but inspiration is not something that can be switched on and off like a tap, as Lloyd explains: "I was working slow on that Wild Man Dance and then about three weeks before we left for Poland all this music just started abundantly pouring out of me. I'm hiking in the mountains, I'm swimming in the water and all this music starts flooding out. As we were even leaving I was still writing music and some of the movements didn't make it there."

A year and a half after the world premiere of Wild Man Dance at Jazztopad, and just a week after the album's Blue Note release, Lloyd received the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master award, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to jazz since the mid-1950s.

Although the continual adulation of audiences world-wide throughout the years is arguably the greatest barometer of Lloyd's ongoing success, he is, nevertheless, grateful for the official recognition. "It's great," says Lloyd. "It's nice to be honoured and appreciated."

Other significant awards have come in what appears to be a golden period in Lloyd's career. In 2015, Berklee College of Music awarded Lloyd an honorary Doctorate. Of greater personal note, however, was when Lloyd returned to his hometown of Memphis in 2012 to receive a note on the Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame. The corresponding concert that Lloyd gave was his first in his hometown of Memphis since 1964.

Lloyd's long aversion to playing in the town he grew up in had been the result of the racism he encountered belonging to a mixed-race family in the racially conflictive environment that prevailed in the Memphis of the 1930s and 1940s.

After the guts of half a century, to play Memphis again, where he cut his teeth playing with Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Ace and Bobby Blue Bland, has been a cathartic experience for Lloyd. "If a general conquers a thousand men a thousand times and one man conquers himself, who's the greater? I'm of that school," says Lloyd.

Lloyd is more expansive on the difficulties and prejudices of those times growing up in Memphis in Joseph Woodard's Lloyd biography A Wild, Blatant Truth (Silman-James Press, 2016). With touring and a new recording to promote, Lloyd, naturally enough, is keener to talk about his music.

Whilst Lloyd has always been open to new collaborations, his groups of the past decade and more have been remarkably stable. "I like the simpatico of a cohesive unit," explains Lloyd. Drummer Eric Harland has been the bedrock of Lloyd's groups since late 2001. Harland was stepping into the shoes of Billy Higgins, who died in May that year.

As Lloyd explains, Higgins was a little bit special. "You were always trying to get another breath to keep playing because Higgins made you feel so good. He could play behind the beat, in front of the beat—he could make you a tailor-made suit. He was very special."

Higgins' were mighty big shoes to fill but Lloyd feels that Harland's arrival was fated. "When Master Higgins left in May 2001, on his deathbed he said 'Let's keep working on this music. I'm not going to be there but I'll always be with you.' Then a few months later I meet Eric."

It was around the time of 9/11. Lloyd was playing at the Blue Note. He came downstairs at the end of the evening and caught the jam band, whose drummer, the twenty-five-year old Harland, caught Lloyd's attention. "He had this radiance," says Lloyd. "I knew Higgins had sent him."

Harland joined Lloyd shortly thereafter and has remained ever since. In addition, Harland has played with the likes of Dave Holland, McCoy Tyner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Terrence Blanchard, Joshua Redman and the SF Jazz Collective, earning a reputation as one of standout jazz drummers of his generation.

Then, in 2003, Lloyd was invited by John McLaughlin to attend a Shakti concert. Lloyd met Zakir Hussain, planting the seeds of Sangam, with Harland rounding out the trio. To date the trio has cut just the one CD, the spectacular Sangam (ECM, 2006), which captured a live performance in Santa Barbara California, 2004. "That was magic chemistry," purrs Lloyd.

Sangam may be a little studio shy, but the trio continues to perform live around the world, albeit infrequently due to everybody's busy schedules. "It's ongoing," affirms Lloyd.

Lloyd's main band in this period, however, has been his quartet. Pianist Jason Moran, like Harland, has formed a particularly close musical understanding with Lloyd, a simpatico that shone on their duo recording Hagar's Song (ECM, 2013). Moran and Harland's own projects, however, have become ever-more time consuming, and in fact, the 2016 tour that produced Passin' Thru marked the first extended tour of Lloyd's New Quartet in several years.

Inevitably, a new pianist and drummer entered the narrative—Utrecht-born, Los Angeles-reared, Gerald Clayton and drummer Kendrick Scott. Refitting half the quartet may seem like a serious challenge, but Lloyd embraces the coming and going of musicians in his quartet. "The transition is always gentle," says Lloyd.

"Kendrick and Eric are from the same town—Houston. They grew up together, they're very close," says Lloyd. "Eric is very fond of Kendrick and has been wanting me to play with him. So, Kendrick would come around to a lot of our gigs. It was an easy transition because Eric had prepared him. He had done his homework."

Clayton's story is not dissimilar. "He used to come around and hear the quartet and I would always see him backstage," Lloyd recounts. "Jason had so many commitments he couldn't come, so Reuben recommended I try Gerald and it worked out well. The music is not set. It evolves and it flows and I have to have musicians who can take the journey with me and who have wide palettes. I take it as a blessing, rather than an arduous task. I've been blessed like that all my life. The guys come and they want to be here."

Another group of musicians whose dream of playing with Lloyd was realized in November 2016 was the acclaimed Polish trio of Marcin Wasilewski, Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Michal Miskiewicz, who came to wider international prominence in the 2000s with Tomasz Stanko.

"It was great," recalls Lloyd of the one-off concert in Roma Theatre, Warsaw. The seeds of the collaboration had been planted over a decade before, when Lloyd and Stanko's group had shared billing on a number of concerts in San Francisco, New York and London.

"I said backstage once it would be nice to play with these guys because they had a musicality that was interesting," Lloyd recalls. "I planted a seed in them and they were all hot to do it. So their management and Dorothy [Darr, Lloyd's partner and manager] were talking back and forth and they found a hole in my schedule and they tried to plug it up."

The four musicians only had one rehearsal prior to the concert but the Polish trio had clearly done their homework. "Again, they were prepared. They had studied my music," says Lloyd. "I also brought along a lot of new music and they absorbed it, and some of my old stuff. They particularly wanted to play "When Miss Jessye Sings," that I had recorded with Brad Mehldau. It was a beautiful concert," Lloyd enthuses. "We had a magical evening in Warsaw. It's like language and family."

A more enduring musical venture has been The Marvels, Lloyd's group with Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Rogers and Harland. Frisell has played with a staggeringly diverse range of people during his forty-year career, so it was perhaps surprising that his and Lloyd's stars had never crossed before.

"We had played some concerts decades earlier where we shared the bill," recalls Lloyd. "I remember one specifically in that church in Leipzig [St. Thomas Church] where Bach did all the music. But it was like two worlds, we didn't really interact. We didn't have deep contact. I realize now that he was shy."

It was Frisell, however, who made contact with Lloyd years later. "Then it started happening somehow. I think Bill reached out when Paul Motian left. He maybe asked me for a quote -they were going to do a concert in homage to Paul. I couldn't be there. Paul used to play with me also; that was the early period when Jack [DeJohnette] had gone with Miles [Davis]."

Frisell confided to Lloyd that he had been a big fan from an early age. "He said it started when he was thirteen and he was living in Denver and my group then was Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Cecil McBee," Lloyd relates. "This is how Bill tells it—he realized that 'Oh, it can be like this.' It expanded his vision of possibilities so he was very inspired by that group, as a lot of people had been. He grew up with that aesthetic."
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