Charles Lloyd at the Barbican

‘There’s a hunger that I sense in the audiences I play to today’, Charles Lloyd said in a recent interview. ‘People are searching for beauty in a world that wants to shut it out. They’re looking for peace in a world full of disturbances. They get so much stuff that’s been packaged and put in a box’. Well, the hunger of those of us privileged to attend the magnificent concert at the Barbican on Sunday evening was more than assuaged: Charles Lloyd, his quartet and voice of Greek resistance Maria Farantouri, filled the space with music of transcendent beauty that joyously affirmed the resilience of the human spirit.

Last month Charles Lloyd celebrated his 75th birthday with a spell-binding concert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the final hour of which was devoted to a performance of the his 2011 album The Athens Concert, a live recording made in Athens in June 2010.  For me, The Athens Concert, of all the peaks attained by Charles Lloyd in his illustrious career, is the most sublime: a stirring blend of Greek folk songs, Byzantine hymns and improvised jazz. When I learnt that Lloyd was bringing his Greek project to the Barbican, I knew that I had to make the journey down from Liverpool.

As in New York, this was a concert divided into two smaller sets – in which Lloyd was joined first by pianist Jason Moran and then by the full quartet – followed by an almost complete performance of the material from the Athens Concert CD, with Maria Farantouri and Socratis Sinopoulos on lyra joining the others.  This made for a perfect evening of varied music, performed by musicians of shimmering talent.

Lloyd’s most recent album is Hagar’s Song, an intimate set of duets with quartet pianist Jason Moran (the title piece is a five-part suite dedicated to the memory of Lloyd’s great-great grandmother, who spent most of her life as a slave). The pair opened with two numbers from the album – Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Pretty Girl’ and Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’.  Moran is one of the best jazz pianists around at the moment, and on ‘Pretty Girl’ he seemed to be almost Lloyd’s Siamese twin, so closely did piano and saxophone weave around one another.  The joyful, swinging ‘Mood Indigo’ showcased Moran’s sharply-defined, blues-drenched piano striding along with Lloyd’s marching sax.  The duo closed their mini-set with a too-short, lyrical account of Brian Wilson’s ‘God Only Knows’. Lloyd became friends with The Beach Boys in the 1960s, and they recorded and toured together.  Of ‘God Only Knows’, Lloyd says, ‘It’s a Beach Boys song that I remember Carl Wilson used to sing with a very pure voice, and it touched me very deeply. And I sort of filed that away as something that I wanted to play one day’.

Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd performing together earlier this year.
Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd performing together earlier this year.

The duo were now joined on stage by the remaining members of the New Quartet – Reuben Rogers on double bass and drummer Greg Hutchinson (sitting in for Eric Harland).  Their short set consisted of a lyrical exploration of  Lloyd’s iconic ‘Dream Weaver’,  closer to the version on the Athens Concert CD than the Coltranesque workout on his first album with Keith Jarrett in 1966. That was followed by an interpretation of another Brian Wilson song, ‘Caroline, No’.  This was inspiring music of the first order.  As Kevin Le Gendre observes in the programme notes:

Lloyd’s playing has touched audiences around the planet, and, like the artists who understand the inclusive pull of jazz, he has found common ground with players all over the world. This universality is a defining aspect of his musical being. It explains why, like the artists who understand the communicative push of jazz, he keeps listening as well as playing. The world happily lends an ear in return.

Musicians on stage at the Barbican
Musicians on stage at the Barbican (photo: Dorothy Darr)

‘The human voice can capture the heart more swiftly and directly than any other instrument’, wrote Charles Lloyd in the sleeve notes for the Athens Concert CD.  The haunting lyricism and sheer emotional power of the evening’s lengthy final set, with the quartet joined by Maria Farantouri and Socratis Sinopoulos, powerfully confirmed this statement.  This section of the concert was for me one of the most intense musical experiences I have ever had.

Introducing Maria Farantouri, Lloyd declared ‘she has been my teacher for the last decade or so’. He first heard Maria sing ‘on a cold November night’ in his 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’, he wrote for the Athens Concert CD. At the Barbican, Lloyd continued that theme, expressing his feelings about the debt owed to Greek culture, philosophy and civilisation. He spoke of the injustice of what had been allowed to happen in Greece: on the contrary, we owed them royalties for their contribution to culture.  But, ever since he was a child – ‘I was a sound man from early on’ – he had felt that the odds were rigged.  ‘The only thing that makes sense is music’. (More than a decade ago, after he’d returned to recording, Lloyd was approached by a major-label executive . ‘I looked at their contract’, he said, ‘and it was 43 pages about slavery. I have a one-page contract with ECM based on a real relationship’.

Lloyd spoke of being taken places in Greece by Maria, and how her reception reflected the Greek reverence for artists.  When they pulled over to the buy cherries and the roadside seller saw Maria, she refused to accept payment.  Maria Farantouri has long been associated with the music of Mikis Theodorakis and resistance to oppression and military rule. Forced into exile by the junta after the military coup in 1967, she recorded songs of protest by Theodorakis, Bertholt Brecht and others. She has never wavered in her political views and served in the Greek Parliament from 1989 to 1993, representing the Panhellenic Socialist Movement. She has a voice that strike a chill in the hearts of oppressors and summon hope for the oppressed.

‘Maria, when I heard her sing, it moved me so much’, Lloyd has said. ‘There was Billie Holiday right before me when I heard Maria. They’re not singing the same song, but the same heart informs you’. In 2010, Charles and Maria played together for the first time, in a programme that blended traditional Greek and Byzantine melodies with jazz improvisation. Farantouri says she felt comfortable singing with Lloyd, and together, they began to build a bridge connecting ancient forms with jazz:

I remember the musicians, they started to smile, dancing with the rhythms.  And then I think, ‘OK, we can walk over the bridge.

Jazz grew out of the quest of African Americans for freedom, and the music of the Greek Suite which the ensemble now performed, is ultimately a reflection of contemporary Greek struggles against tyranny and economic exploitation, drawing on centuries old folk music as well as more recent texts by Theodorakis, Eleni Karaindou and Giorgos Seferis. The confluence of jazz and Greek song that the musicians have achieved here sounds seamless and unforced because it entwines two streams of music based in the struggles of two cultures to overcome oppression.

Common to both the Greek and the African American cultures is the use of lamentations as an expression of resistance, and a belief in the power of music to enable a community to survive hardship and suffering that otherwise might be unbearable. The currents that flow between these musicians and their seemingly separate cultures reflect real and deep concordances.

From 1967 to 1974, Farantouri was forced into exile after the military coup in Greece. During this time, she and Theodorakis travelled Europe singing and recording songs of protest and exile. It was during this period Farantouri released the anti-fascist Mauthausen Cycle,  a work by Theodorakis that featured the poetry of Iakovos Kambanellis. Often referred to as a hymn to human rights, the cycle would become one of Farantouri’s signature recordings.

Charles Lloyd, Reuben Rogers, Marie Farantouri, Socratis Sinopoulos
Charles Lloyd, Reuben Rogers, Marie Farantouri and Socratis Sinopoulos in Berlin

Exile and oppression: George Seferis begins one of his most famous poems with the words: ‘Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me’.  Listening to Maria Farantouri’s passionate vocals entwine with Charles Lloyd’s sonorous saxophone, I was reminded of gospel, of ‘Let My People Go’:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

‘Go Down Moses’ appears on Charles’ 2010 album Mirror, while the ‘national anthem’ of African Americans appears as the soulful title track of 2002’s Lift Every Voice:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

When Giorgos Seferis, who was openly critical of the Junta, died in 1971, his funeral too became an enormous, impromptu public protest, and the crowds began to sing his poem ‘Denial’, which had been set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and had become a popular song played on Greek jukeboxes before being banned. What began life as a love poem had become an anthem of defiance:

There in the secret cove,
When the noon sun seemed to halt,
I thirsted with my love,
But the water there was salt.

We wrote out her name
Upon the blinding sand,
Then -ah – the sea-breeze came
With its erasing hand.

So fiercely did we long
With spirit, heart, and strife,
To grasp at this life – wrong –
And so we changed our life.

The entire Greek Suite sounds like jazz. There is music that has its origins in a third century Byzantine hymn and there are traditional folk songs from the Dodecaneses Islands, from Smyrna, Epirus and the Black Sea, but all of it sounds contemporary and urgently relevant to our times. The way in which Farantouri’s voice and the plucked and bowed lyra of Socratis Sinopoulos combine with the jazz stylings of Lloyd and the rest of the quartet is astonishing and wonderful. Sinopoulos’s earthy and ancient sound evokes the history, emotion and landscape of Greece, while Lloyd produces his most elegiac and sensitive playing.

When I hear Charles Lloyd breathe the beautiful notes which introduce ‘Kratissa ti zoi mou’ (‘I Kept Hold of My Life’, the lyric by Georgis Seferis), I simply melt. Among the many other wonderful moments are the the pair of spirited tunes by Theodorakis (‘In the Dry Soil’ and ‘In the Paradise Gardens’), ‘Voyage to Cythera’ with lyrics by Eleni Karaindou, and the gorgeous ‘Requiem’ with its Greek lyric by political activist Agathi Dimitrouka:

Shadows longing
to be loved
to bloom and be resurrected
in light and love

Spring is late
and when it 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.

Lloyd’s achingly beautiful ‘Prayer’ emerges from Jason Moran’s delicate, bell-like notes on the piano as Maria Farantouri, full-throated and passionate, sings the wordless song and her voice  interweaves with Lloyd’s sublime, yearning saxophone.

Lloyd & Farantouri signing 1

By my reckoning, all of the pieces on the Athens album were performed, with the exception of Lloyd’s ‘Blow Wind’, with the musicians completing the performance having been brought back by rapturous applause for a lengthy encore.

Taking a bow
Taking a bow (photo: Dorothy Darr)

Afterwards, Maria and Charles signed CDs in the Barbican foyer.  I’d left my copy of the Athens Concert behind in Liverpool, so I bought a copy of Hagar’s Song, and Maria kindly added her signature alongside Charles’.

Signed CD

In an interview with All About Jazz in 2004, Charles Lloyd was asked, ‘what is the driving force behind your creativity?’ He answered:Spirit’.  For long years, Lloyd retreated from the music business, pursuing deep personal explorations of alternative modes of spirituality, embracing the spiritual teaching of the Vedanta texts including the Bha­gavad Gita. He has called the pieces he plays ‘tenderness sutras’, referring to the ‘threads’ or aphorisms central to the Hindu philosophy that  he embraced decades ago:

The one thing I can say is that I beg the creator to let me be an open vessel. I try to get out of the way. If I put myself in there, there might not be any wind to fill my sails. I know the winds of grace are always blowing. I must raise my sails high enough to catch the breeze.

Charles Lloyd beneath a tree

Charles Lloyd undoubtedly raised his sails high and achieved nirvana in this performance.

I dream of a peaceful world. Music is the best means I have to work on that dream. Each time I have the opportunity to play, it is another chance to tell the truth. Life on the planet has come down to such an acute degree of ADD it is terrifying. We are constantly being bombarded from all directions with information – most of it useless that serves to bifurcate the mind. I am afraid that people are going to go from birth to death and never know they were here or why they were here.

Lloyd & Farantouri signing 2

Thank you, Charles and Maria, and all of the musicians on stage, for this evening of transcendent music; thank you for bringing so much joy and beauty into the world.

The Athens Concert: excerpt

Charles Lloyd & Maria Farantouri live (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

See also

4 thoughts on “Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope

  1. Great article, I learned a lot about Charles Lloyd that I didn’t know. I have a lot (13) of his albums but the first one I ever bought (on vinyl) “Fish Out of Water” will always be the most special for me. Thanks for all the hard work writing this, I don’t get to read much about him so this was great.

  2. Thanks, Mike. Apart from those I mentioned in the post, the album I am playing most at the moment is Notes from Big Sur (1992, around the same time as Fish Out of Water).

  3. Great write up of one of my favourites. Why didn’t I go to the concert! How nice for them to do signings as well. Fish Out of Water is the album I always go back to.

  4. So that’s two votes for Fish Out of Water! Since his return in the 1990s, the sequence of albums he’s recorded for ECM have all been excellent. I vary from week to week in deciding my favourite – but I think The Athens Concert is hard to beat.

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