Charles Lloyd at 75: still travelling

Maria Farantouri with Charles Lloyd

Music is a healing force. It has the ability to transcend boundaries, it can touch the heart directly, it can speak to a depth of the spirit where no words are needed. It is a most powerful form of communication and expression of beauty.
– Charles Lloyd

On 15 March, Charles Lloyd was 75, an occasion marked by a spell-binding concert performed before the Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.  In an act of wonderful generosity museum and artist have made the video recording of the concert available on the Met’s website.  We watched it the other evening, and it was – no exaggeration – a transcendental experience.

For over two hours, Lloyd, supported by his New Quartet and Greek vocalist Maria Farantouri, performed a programme of dazzling variety and creativity to an audience arranged on a raised platform in front of the temple as well as elsewhere around the museum’s Sackler Wing.  The concert consisted of four varied sections, opening with Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran duetting on tunes by Strayhorn and Ellington and the hymn ‘Abide With Me’, followed by a sequence in which bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland came on stage to form the full quartet.  Next, the quartet were joined by the mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, the pianist’s wife, for a spirited rendition of ‘Go Down Moses’, with its refrain of ‘Let my people go’, followed by Lloyd’s ‘New Anthem’, with its chorus ‘Roll on till the sweet victory is won’.  The last hour was devoted to the Greek Suite from the 2011 album The Athens Concert, a live recording made at the Herod Atticus Odeon in Athens in June 2010.

I kept hold of my life,
travelling
among the yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes thick with beech leaves,
no fire on their tips;
night is falling.-

‘Kratissa ti zoi mou’, lyrics by George Seferis

For me, The Athens Concert represents a sublime peak in Charles Lloyd’s illustrious career, a stirring blend of Greek folk songs, Byzantine hymns and improvised jazz.  To perform this magnificent cycle of Greek music Lloyd and the quartet were joined on stage by Maria Farantouri, the singer revered in her native land as the legendary voice of resistance during the Greek military junta of the late 1960s; singing the banned protest songs of Mikis Theodorakis she kept alive the hope of freedom, her songs the embodiment of the Greek soul.  With her was the master of the lyra Socratis Sinopoulos, bowing a politiki lyra – a small, pear-shaped lyre.

Spring is late
and when appears it will be dull
like a land bent with age
like an embrace without children.

Silent shadows
lean over the earth
like trees hanging in mid-air
with no roots in life.
– from ‘Requiem’ by Agathi Dimitrouka

 The words and music of the Athens Suite express the pain and yearning sadness of exile and loss as well as containing passages of joyous exuberance.

In the dry soil of my heart
a cactus has grown.
It’s been more than twenty centuries
since I dreamed of jasmine.
 
My hair smelled of jasmine
my voice had taken something
of its delicate perfume.
My clothes smelled of jasmine
my voice had taken something
of its delicate perfume.

But the cactus is not bad;
it simply doesn’t know it and is afraid
Sadly I look at the cactus;
where did all those centuries go?

In the dry soil of my heart . . .

- ‘In the Dry Soil’, from ‘The Sun and Time’  by Mikis Theodorakis

The spirit of this music is best captured in this review of the Athens Concert CD by Ian Patterson for All About Jazz:

At forty minutes, the eleven segments of the three suites make for a powerful collective statement. Haunting lyricism and gravitas dance around each other in beautifully shifting tides, and Lloyd’s sparingly used flute and taragato combine with lyra to add a further dimension to the music. Farantouri conveys a great range of emotions, from lament to incantation, and from operatic drama to unbridled joy. Lloyd, Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and Harland all enjoy their moments in the sun, but it is the empathetic quartet support of Farantouri which impresses most, buoying her and lifting her—and the ensemble, in turn— to transcendent heights of expression.

If the best music is experienced live, then those who attended the Odeon of Herodes Atticus—at the foot of the Acropolis, Athens—to witness Lloyd’s New Quartet, Farantouri, Sinopoulos and Farazis one summer evening, can consider themselves truly fortunate; the music captured here is sublime and, like the best art, is surely timeless in its appeal.

In the sleeve notes to the Athens Concert CD, Lloyd explains how his association with Maria Farantouri and Greek music began:

I first heard Maria sing on a cold November night in my home town, Santa Barbara. … From her first notes I felt such a power and depth of humanity; she is a modern wonder rising up from the ruins of civilization. She … introduced me to ‘Vlefaro mou’ by Nikos Kypourgos and several songs by Mikis Theodorakis. Mikis’s composition, ‘Kratissa ti zoi mou’, with haunting lyrics by Nobel laureate poet George Seferis took root in my repertoire.

Each year since then, Lloyd has returned to Greece ‘to walk through the sage, pungently fragrant in the hot sun, swim in the languid waters of the blue sea and work on the music’ and hear Maria sing songs ‘as ancient as the stones of Delphi’.

As we started expanding on the ideas, we brought in Socratis whose mystical sound on lyra adds an entirely ‘other’ dimension. … Jason, Reuben and Eric are adventurous explorers, and it makes my heart sing that they continue to take the journey with me. Patiently, Maria and I built upon this dream of creating a musical bridge between our two worlds. This dream became manifest in the Athens Concert.

As for Maria Farantouri, in the same sleeve notes she wrote:

After our first meeting, my dear friend Charles has been coming to Greece very often and each time, I try to show him something of my country. The Parthenon, Mycenae, Epidaurus, the little bars of Kerameicos at night, the feasts at our homes, our cool courtyards and the Greek summer. Also, our poetry, and the songs of Mikis Theodorakis, Eleni Karaindrou, Nikos Kypourgos and Agathi Dimitrouka who wrote the lyrics for ‘Requiem’. I wanted Charles to hear the ancient Greek words as well as the regional dialects of the centuries-old language of ours…. All these elements meet in the outpouring topics of the Greek soul: departure, nostalgia, love and exile.

Maria Farantouri sees this music as ‘an expression of a deeper need to narrate together the crossing of two different musical worlds, to throw light from a new angle to the memories, the wanderings, the dreams of our ancestors, and all the time keep our sight turned towards the future’.

This need brought us to the stage of Herod Atticus Odeon on a beautiful summer night, under a bright moon and a vigilant Acropolis. … Every breath, beat, and touch on the keyboard or the strings was communicating something of the secret meaning of things, lifting our spirit and our senses.

At the end of this two-hour tour de force, Maria Farantouri sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Lloyd before the musicians played ‘Yanni Mou’, the joyous song song that concludes the Athens Concert album.  If you love jazz or appreciate the merging of musics from different places and traditions, do watch the Met’s recording of the concert.  YouTube has these performances of the Athens Suite from a concert in Berlin in 2011:

Kratissa ti zoi mou (Berlin, 2011)

Requiem (Berlin 2011)

Greek Suite part 1 (Berlin, 2011)

Greek Suite part 2 (Berlin, 2011)

Yanni mou (Berlin, 2011)

The Charles Lloyd Quartet in 1969, featuring Keith Jarrett

The Charles Lloyd Quartet in 1966, featuring Keith Jarrett

It is almost as if Charles Lloyd has had two lives in jazz: he was one of the first jazz artists to sell a million copies of a recording, but then he surprised the music world by walking away from performing just at the point that he was dubbed a jazz superstar.

In 1965, Lloyd formed his first quartet, a brilliant ensemble that introduced the jazz world to the talents of pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee. Their first release together was a studio recording, Dream Weaver, and was followed by Forest Flower: Live at Monterey (1966).  That made history as one of the first jazz recordings to sell a million copies, becoming a stunning crossover success. The quartet was the first jazz group to appear at the Fillmore in San Francisco where they shared the billing with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

But then Lloyd disbanded the quartet and dropped from sight, withdrawing to pursue an inner journey at Big Sur, the wild haven on the California coast.  In 1986, after being hospitalized with a nearly fatal medical condition, Lloyd returned to music, largely through the encouragement of the incomparable Manfred Eicher, producer at ECM records.

Lloyd made his first recording for ECM, Fish Out of Water in 1989. The project marked the beginning of a new wave of Lloyd compositions and recordings. By teaming Lloyd with musicians such as Bobo Stenson it got Lloyd writing and recording again. After that, each succeeding album – Notes from Big Sur, All My Relations and Canto – took the music to ever greater heights.
Charles Lloyd New Quartet Lloyd with Reuben Rogers, Jason Moran and Eric Harland

Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet Lloyd with Reuben Rogers, Jason Moran and Eric Harland

In the new century, Lloyd would go on to greater successes and even further diversity on albums like The Water Is Wide, Mirror, Sangam, Lift Every Voice and Jumping the CreekWhich Way Is East (2004), was a double-disc set of home recordings with close friend and drum legend Billy Higgins, made just a few months before Higgins’ death.  Sangam was an exhilerating trio recording with drummer Eric Harland and tabla master Zakir Hussain.  This year, Hagar’s Song is a duo record with Jason Moran, the pianist of his current quartet, which ahs been together now for six years. For me, Moran is close to being the best jazz pianist and the current Charles Lloyd quartet the most dynamic and exciting group playing jazz at present.

The same line-up that played at the Met last week are due to perform at the Barbican in London at the end of April. We’ve got tickets, and after this taster I can’t wait.

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 Lloyd—you feel him.
– Matt Lescovik, All About Jazz

Charles Lloyd walks on

Charles Lloyd travels on

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