Reflections on Charles Lloyd

I’m a simple guy…I believe in simple living and high thinking.  I follow my own bells and I’m not governed by sleep-walking or the plantation – neither work for me.

Lately I’ve been listening to the beautiful new album from Charles Lloyd and his brilliant new Quartet.  After the turbulence of the Quartet’s first album, Rabo de Nube, Mirror is a return to the tranquil spirituality of The Water Is Wide, released at the start of the decade.  On Monday evening, Jazz on 3 broadcast the Quartet’s magnificent set at the London Jazz Festival last week.  In a chat with John Fordham of The Guardian beforehand, Lloyd’s spiritual perspective was very much to the fore.

Lloyd’s music reflects a lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality and the harmony and rhythms of Indian classical music.  Before the Quartet’s  final number at the Barbican (‘Tagi’, from the new album), he recited from memory a lengthy section from Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita:

He knows bliss in the Atman and wants nothing else. Cravings torment the heart: he renounces cravings. I call him illumined. Not shaken by adversity, not hankering after happiness: free from fear, free from anger, free from the things of desire. I call him a seer, and illumined. The bonds of his flesh are broken. He is lucky, and does not rejoice: he is unlucky, and does not weep. I call him illumined. … Thinking about sense-objects will attach you to sense-objects; grow attached, you become addicted.  Your addiction turns to anger.  Become angry you confuse your mind. Confuse your mind you forget the lesson of experience.  Forget experience, you lose discrimination.  Lose discrimination, you miss life’s only purpose.  When he has no lust, no hatred, a man walks safely among the things of lust and hatred.  To obey the Atman is his peaceful joy.  Sorrow melts into that clear peace: his quiet mind is soon established in peace. Water flows continually into the ocean but the ocean is never disturbed: desire flows into the mind of the seer but he is never disturbed.

Lloyd was born in 1938 in Memphis (in this lifetime, as he says) into a difficult home life: he spent much of a lonely childhood being shipped from one relative’s home to the next. Memphis has a rich river culture and musical heritage saturated in blues, gospel and jazz, and Lloyd’s own ancestry was similarly rich: a blend of African,  Cherokee,  Mongolian,  and  Irish.  The young Lloyd was surrounded by music, hearing country blues, the music of the Baptist church and Native American songs he heard sung by his grandmother.  With this background, growing up in segregated Memphis, Lloyd could never understand the hatred on either side of the racial dividing lines.

I was born in Memphis, which is a strange place to be born, but what can I say? You choose your parents well or wherever the Creator drops you off. I grew up with music all around me. It was just rich.

In the pre-show interview, Lloyd spoke of his constant belief in the transformative power of music.  His musical message has consistently been one of peace, love, unity, and acceptance, sensed most strongly perhaps on The Water Is Wide and the new album Mirror:

On that record I had some simple notion – or deep notion – that I wanted to imbue some tenderness into the world.  From time to time the thing gets tense…people aren’t kind to each other. I’m constantly botherated by the lack of a beautiful universe – which I try to create in music.  Before 9/11 The Water Is Wide came, and now I’m feeling this same tumult again…

In 1966 Lloyd formed his first quartet which included the twenty year old pianist Keith Jarrett and twenty-four year old drummer Jack DeJohnette.  Their European tour that year culminated with the group’s breakthrough performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France. The quartet’s music was an arresting fusion of straight-ahead post-bop, free jazz and world music which caught the attention  of  both  jazz  fans  and  critics.  They  also  achieved  a  fair  amount  of  crossover  success  with  young  rock  fans  and became the first jazz group to play at The Fillmore. Lloyd’s album Forest Flower, Live at Monterey was a commercial success.

In 1970 drug problems led Lloyd to disband the quartet, and most accounts suggest that he entered a state of semi-retirement, practically disappearing  from the  jazz  scene.  In the interview, however, Lloyd insisted that these stories are exaggerated.  He remained active in the studio, both as a leader and a guest sideman.  Surprisingly, he spoke of  the Beach Boys being at this time ‘friends and allies of mine’.  Brian Wilson offered him the use of his own studio, and Lloyd recorded with the Beach Boys.  Which explains the appearance of a rendition of  ‘Caroline No’ on the album.

Of this period, Lloyd remarked:

Sometimes I need to make music away from the plantation…I had to face the mirror of my own inadequacies.

Lloyd beat his addictions and began to imbibe deeply from Eastern spiritual traditions. In 1981 he resumed playing for two years, but then was hospitalized with a nearly fatal medical condition. When he regained his strength in 1988 he formed a new quartet with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. After his return to the Montreux Festival in 1988, Swiss critic Yvan Ischer wrote:

To see and hear Charles Lloyd in concert is always an event, not only  because  this  saxophonist  has  been  at  quite  a  few  crossroads,  but  also  because  he  seems  to  hold  an  impalpable  truth which makes him a thoroughly original musician.

The key turning point, leading to the renaissance of Lloyd’s musical career, came in 1989 with his first recording for ECM Records, Fish Out of Water.  ECM’s  producer, Manfred Eicher, compared  the  recording  to  a  Giacometti
painting, saying, ‘I really believe this is the refined essence of what music should be. All the meat is gone, only the bones remain’.

Speaking with John Fordham, Lloyd spoke warmly of  ECM as ‘a home where sensitives can live and flourish, away from the plantation’:

The people at ECM have always been very loving and open and supportive of me and caring – and that was a different kind of tradition than I had experienced in the American corporate structure.

Amongst the many brilliant musicians that Eicher brought to Charles Lloyd was drummer Billy Higgins, who died in 2001, and with whom Lloyd shared a deep friendship and spiritual quest. Lloyd recalled that on his deathbed Higgins said, ‘we must continue to work on this music’.  ‘You mean you’re going to get out of this bed and play with me?’ Lloyd responded. ‘No, I didn’t say I’ll be there, but I’ll always be with you’.  Then, speaking of how his new quartet came together, he remarked, ‘Three months later, from the other shore, he sent me Eric Harland’.

Highlights from his ECM catalogue include The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins (both recorded at the same session in 2001), Which Way is East, 17 duos between the two soulmates Lloyd and Higgins, recorded in the last months Higgins’ life, Jumping the Creek (2005), and the live trio recording Sangam with tabla master Zakir Hussein and drummer Eric Harland.

And now we have the wonderful new album, Mirror, wherein the new Quartet of Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums), revisit some of the most gospel-like songs of Lloyd’s repertoire. In an appropriate symmetry, the title track reappears from Lloyd’s first ECM album, Fish Out of Water.  Amongst other reappraisals there is a new reading of ‘The Water Is Wide’, with a jaunty opening.  The album is already being acclaimed as a highlight of his forty-plus year career.  John Fordham gave it 5 stars in his review for The Guardian, while John Kelman at All About Jazz concluded:

Throughout Lloyd’s previously visited originals, traditional spirituals (The Water is Wide‘s title track, here, going straight to church) and standards, Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers propel the music with more egalitarian interest. Two Monk tunes—the balladic ‘Ruby, My Dear’ and rubato ‘Monk’s Mood’—demonstrate Moran’s inescapable roots, while Lloyd turns ‘Caroline, No’, from The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds, into a thing of simmering beauty.

Saving the best for last, Lloyd’s gentle narration on Which Way is East’s ‘Tagi’ – layered over a backdrop of Rogers’ arco and Moran’s impressionistic pianism—is nothing short of transcendental. Ebbing and flowing with spiritual profundity, Lloyd turns to saxophone for a modal solo driven by Harland’s intensifying pulse, before the quartet dissolves for a tranquil coda, bringing Mirror full circle.

While not turning entirely away from the Rabo De Nube‘s unfettered freedom, Mirror‘s greatest success is its quartet’s palpably growing sense of trust, allowing the freedom to explore without the compulsion to resort to the obvious or the melodramatic. Instead, the smallest gestures become amplified, as Mirror continues to bolster Lloyd’s latest ensemble as one of the best—and certainly the freest—of his long career.

I’m not trying to preach anything here. I’m just trying to say that I am just a deep seeker and I think that some people out there may be interested in that and if so, there’s examples that have come through here with that kind of wisdom and knowledge. I have studied all the traditions and I don’t want to expound and say that only one watch keeps perfect time. If the devotee is sincere, all paths are true.

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…Each time we play together there is a healing wholeness that permeates the atmosphere.

We must go forward, all the great ones that went before us insisted on this. For each generation, it is incumbent upon us to rise up and sing the song – the journey and pursuit is unending. I will always remember that from his death bed Master Higgins told me “We must continue to work on this music,” and as long as I am able, I will continue to do so. Each of us has his own experience, and from that experience, something is transmitted. For me, the purpose of life is to know God and the struggle of spiritual life will go on as long as I have breath. The pursuit and the music are one.
– Charles Lloyd


2 thoughts on “Reflections on Charles Lloyd

  1. Charles is a rare gift of spiritually related Jazz. along with Pharoah and the late Alice. Music is the nada Brahaminanda if done correctly. The bliss of the sound of God.

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