Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity

Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity

Charles-Lloyd-en-Big-Sur

 Charles Lloyd at Big Sur
There are few jazz musicians whom I hold in greater reverence than Charles Lloyd, so when I learned earlier this year that a documentary about his life was soon to be released I did something that I’ve never done before: I pre-ordered the DVD on Amazon. My anticipation was heightened by news that the film had been compiled by Lloyd’s long-time partner and artistic collaborator, Dorothy Darr.

Unfortunately, however, I must report that I found Arrows Into Infinity a big disappointment. It’s like one of those music documentaries you see on BBC4 on a Friday evening: lots of talking heads, a smattering of stills of posters and photographs from times past, and frustratingly-truncated clips of the musician in live performance.  The DVD does not contain any extras – no bonus clips from studio rehearsals or concert recordings.

The worst aspect of documentaries like this is that the talking heads mainly talk about themselves – their reactions to being in a particular place at a particular time and seeing Lloyd perform, or hearing his then latest recording. The worst of these solipsistic offenders is the dreaded Stanley Crouch, who seems to turn up in every documentary about jazz these days.  We learn nothing from him, except that Crouch is self-opinionated and has little to say that enhances our understanding of Lloyd or the enjoyment of his music.

Nor is he the worst offender: another talking head, musing on the impact which Lloyd’s classic recording Forest Flower made upon her, says: ‘I was never really a flower child; I was a Forest Flower child’.  It really is difficult to believe that someone as close to Lloyd and as committed to his art as Darr could have thought such inanities worth preserving.

Above all, the aspect of Arrows Into Infinity which will frustrate many who have been inspired by the albums which Charles Lloyd has recorded for ECM since his return to public performance two decades ago – music deeply spiritual, boundary-crossing, and always probing new frontiers of expression – is that barely one third of the film dwells on this period of renewed energy and creativity, and then only in an incoherent and fragmentary manner.

Arrows into Infinity cover

Two-thirds of Arrows Into Infinity is devoted to a painstakingly detailed account of Lloyd’s career up to the point in the early 1970s when, beset by personal doubts and the effects of drug abuse, he dropped out of sight.  There’s no doubt that this is an interesting period, and one in which we can discern clear continuities in Lloyd’s approach to his music: most especially, the emergence of his distinctive saxophone style and his interest in looking beyond conventional boundaries  to collaborate with musicians outside the world of jazz.  Nevertheless, the detailed  and methodical treatment of this period only serves to highlight the film’s scrappy and hurried review of his work in recent decades.

Lloyd joined the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in 1964, where he performed alongside Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. He remained with Cannonball for two years, before signing with CBS Records in 1964 Lloyd to record his first album as a leader: Of Course, Of Course. Robbie Robertson played some guitar on that album, and tells of seeing Lloyd live for the first time.  He also explains the origin of album’s title ‘If Charles agreed with you, he’d say, ‘Of course’.

In 1965 Lloyd formed his own quartet, the 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, followed by Forest Flower: Live at Monterey, released in 1966.  Forest Flower made history as one of the first jazz recordings to sell a million copies: it was a crossover success that appealed to hippy rock audiences, and remains a great live album and a milestone in Lloyd’s career.  In the film, Jason Moran, pianist in the current quartet, speaks of finding Forest Flower in his parents’ LP collection as a kid and it being a seminal influence.

Charles Lloyd Quartet

The Charles Lloyd Quartet in 1967

The Charles Lloyd Quartet was the first jazz group to appear at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and shared billing with rock luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cream, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.  Lloyd was selling plenty of records and making connections beyond the usual jazz audience: he appeared on recordings by the Beach Boys, including Holland, and numbers such as ‘Caroline No’ and ‘God Only Knows’ remain in his repertoire.

Charles Lloyd Quartet Fillmore

The Charles Lloyd Quartet play the Fillmore

All this is interesting stuff, but the film tips too heavily toward this period, to the neglect of the equally interesting music that Lloyd has made since the 1990s.  As Michael S Clark observes at Instrumentali.com:

The film tends to dwell on the important episodes in Charles Lloyd’s musical career, not least his crossover appeal to rock audiences in the mid to late sixties, concerts in the Soviet Union that inadvertently politicized his jazz identity and jamming his way past musical checkpoints with the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It’s strange to say, but the longer the film stays in those places the more Lloyd himself fades from view. This is especially true when the HBO-style testimonials are in full flow. The river of effulgent praise is no doubt deserved, but these talking heads are not the subject, and Lloyd is fascinating enough in himself to carry his own story.

The film spends a lot of time on the quartet’s  tour of the Soviet Union in 1967, including their rapturous reception at the Tallin Jazz Festival. Lloyd observes that ‘we were not first: Benny Goodman had done it, but he was on a State department tour. We were invited by the people’.

Charles Lloyd in Russia Downbeat magazine cover

Charles Lloyd in Russia: Downbeat magazine cover, July 1967

It was a t this point that Charles Lloyd chose to drop out, retreating to land he’d bought on a hilltop overlooking the ocean at Big Sur.  The move was partly in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations: ‘The business wanted me to become a product’,  he says in the film. ‘And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.’

But another reason was that Loyd had begun to fall back on drugs that impaired his playing and his creativity. ‘I thought I was sailing but I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,’ says Lloyd. ‘At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.’

Charles Lloyd, Big Sur

He got through with the help of transcendental mediation and his Vedanta faith that teaches the harmony of all religions – and with the support of Dorothy Darr, who became his wife and manager: she ‘saved my life’; she ‘keeps our ship afloat’. Together, they managed their 13 acres, ‘planting gardens, pulling weeds’.  They grew avocado trees, figs, vegetables, and took hikes through the redwoods.  It was here that he found the peace, in Lloyd’s words, to ‘wake up and see there’s beauty outside of us and inside of  us’.

In those reclusive years, he still played, taking his flute out beneath the trees: ‘I played music outside, but I wasn’t thinking of coming back to public performance’

CharlesLloyd-flute-bw

Charles Lloyd and flute at Big Sur

Later, he began to play local gigs – accompanying readings by Ken Kesey and Carlos Castenada, and  poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Then, in the early 1980s, the 18-year old French pianist Michel Petrucciani came to Big Sur, seeking Lloyd. Inspired by Petrucciani , Lloyd formed a quartet that toured America, Europe and Japan  in 1982 and 1983 with Petrucciani on piano and Palle Danielsson on bass.

In 1986, after a spell in hospital with a nearly fatal medical condition, Lloyd rededicated himself to music. When he regained his strength in 1988 he formed a new quartet with the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and bassist Palle Danielsson.  His first ECM recording Fish Out Of Water, with Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen signalled a new beginning.

It’s at this point Arrows Into Infinity kind of falls apart, with the remaining third of the film dealing only cursorily with the succession of outstanding recordings which Lloyd has made for ECM since 1989.  The great ensembles which Lloyd has assembled in the past two decades are mentioned only fleetingly: for example, the brilliant new quartet with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, the Sangam trio with Harland and Zakir Hussain, or the Greek project with Maria Farantouri. We gain no sense of how his work has developed since the 1990s, and only fleetingly glimpse how his sound is rooted in his personal philosophy.  There are too many talking heads, and not enough of Lloyd himself, talking or playing.

There is one moment of insight into the source of his beautiful, spiritually questing sound when a Japanese interviewer asks him where it comes from. Lloyd’s answer is just a little unexpected.  It’s not Coltrane, but Lester Young: ‘He had that pretty, gentle sound’, says Lloyd. ‘There’s not enough of that in the world’.

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins by Dorothy Darr

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins (photo by Dorothy Darr)

There’s a moving passage in which Lloyd speaks of his friendship with the drummer Billy Higgins, and of reconnecting with Higgins in the 1990s (they hadn’t played together since the late 1950s).  We see them duetting together in the studio shortly before Higgins’ death in 2001.

Someone in the film remarks that Charles Lloyd makes ‘music that is always searching, but is always at peace with itself’. That seems to me to be a perfect summation of the meaning and the sound of Charles Lloyd’s music.  In All About Jazz in September 2007, Matt Leskovic wrote:

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 emotions—reflective, joyous, dark, mellow, and reaching—and it always stays grounded by retaining its earthy folkiness.

[…]

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.

‘It’s arrows into infinity’, declares Charles Lloyd in the closing frames of this documentary, putting into words his attitude to music making. Here are three clips I found on YouTube that speak more clearly than I’m afraid Arrows Into Infinity does of the character of Lloyd’s musical questing.  They are snapshots of just one stage in the quest: the Sangam trio with Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain.  The first two clips feature Lloyd explaining what he is striving for, as well as playing – with a clarity which Arrows Into Infinity never seems to approach.  The third video is a full-length set by the Sangam Trio.

Related

Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope

Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope

Continue reading “Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope”

Charles Lloyd at 75: still travelling

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

See also

The Athens Concert: Greek soul

The Athens Concert: Greek soul

In these times, when our thoughts turn frequently to the plight of the Greek people, an album emerges that sings triumphantly of the Greek nation’s soul. The Athens Concert is a stunning double CD of a performance by jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri, Greece’s voice of resistance, recorded at the foot of the Acropolis, at the open air Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on a summer night last year.

Since the release of The Water Is Wide in 2000, Charles Lloyd has enjoyed a brilliant renaissance, recovering from the death of his deeply-loved drummer Billy Higgins to forge what is probably the best jazz quartet playing today, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on double-bass and Eric Harland on drums.  Along the way he has gifted us some of the most dazzling jazz albums of the last decade: Hyperion With Higgins, Jumping the Creek, Sangam, and Mirror.

Lloyd has never sounded better than on this album, nor have his three sidemen.  But this is not just another album from a great jazz quartet: it is a unique and beautiful document of a collaboration with Greek musicians, Maria Farantouri and Socratis Sinopoulos that includes songs by Mikis Theoedorakis and suites of Greek traditional music based on texts by Greek poets.

I have to admit to never having heard of Maria Farantouri before this – yet she is a modern Greek heroine, loved by Greeks not only for her voice and her interpretations of Greek music, but also for her resolute political activism.  In the years of the military junta, living in exile, she was the voice of the Greek resistance and kept the music of Mikis Theodorakis alive during the seven years of the military dictatorship when it was banned in Greece.  After returning to Greece in 1974, Farantouri resumed her recording career and in 1989 was elected to the Greek Parliament, serving until 1993 as a Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) MP.  Since then she has released a number of albums in different styles, always open to new musical forms.  In The Athens Concert we hear her alongside jazz musicians singing music from the Byzantine sacred tradition, folk songs from the Greek islands, blallads written by Charles Lloyd, and Eleni Karaindrou’s ‘Voyage to Cythera’, the theme song from the 1984 film by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos.

Mikis Theodorakis, Maria Farantouri, Pablo Neruda and Matilde Urrutia (Neruda’s wife)

Maria Farantouri was discovered by Theodorakis at age sixteen and she has subsequentlycome to be acknowledged by both the composer and the Greek people) as the peerless interpreter of Theodorakis.

(Googling Farantouri, I discovered an album that she recorded as a 16-year old, The Ballad of Mauthausen. It consists of a suite of songs written by Mikis Theodorakis that were based on the experiences of the Greek Jewish playwright Iakovos Kambanellis in the Nazi concentration camp located in Austria. Kambanellis wrote four poems inspired by a photo of an unknown girl which he found in the camp and which he kept with him that Theodorakis then set to music. Listening to this powerful and moving album, it seems unbelievable that you are hearing the voice of a girl just out of high school. Already her voice is the rich and mature contralto that is heard on The Athens Concert).

Maria Farantouri and Charles Lloyd have been friends for many years, but this is their first project together. In essays for the CD release, they each recall the course of their collaboration.  Charles Lloyd:

The human voice can capture the heart more swiftly and directly than any other instrument. It can soothe, excite, inspire and lift us to the hyperions.  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. … I felt her voice would be a perfect vehicle for my song ‘Blow Wind”. She, in turn, introduced me to ‘Vlefaro mou’ by NikosKypourgos and several songs by Mikis Theodorakis. Mikis’s composition, ‘Kratissa ti zoi mou’, with haunting lyrics by poet George Seferis took root in my repertoire. … 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.

Maria Farantouri:

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. The ‘Hymn to the Holy Trinity”, written in the third century AD, an amalgamation of late Antiquity and early Byzantium. Also the pentatonic laments of Epirus, the Aegean Sea and finally the songs of the Black Sea. … All these elements meet in the outpouring topics of the Greek soul: departure, nostalgia, love and exile.

What strikes you on listening to this astonishingly beautiful album is that you are hearing two voices – Maria Farantouri’s warm contralto and Charles Lloyd’s saxophone, which has always sounded voice-like.  This sense of two voices intertwined is best revealed in the piece that opens the second CD and my personal favourite – ‘Prayer’ a wordless song, written by Lloyd, on which both voices search and strive for something ineffable, the one echoing the other.

The concert opens with perhaps the most beautiful notes sung by Charles Lloyd, Maria Farantouri’s voice joining him on ‘I Kept Hold of My Life’, adapted by Mikis Theodorakis from the haunting George Seferis poem, ‘Epiphany’ (full text below):

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

I kept hold of my life

The quartet then swing into a jaunty reading of Lloyd’s ‘Dream Weaver’, one of only four tunes from Lloyd that feature in the programme, and a great version.  Following that we get another Lloyd composition – ‘Blow Wind’ – with lyrics sung in English by Farantouri:

Where are we
that the wind won’t blow?

‘Requiem’, a poem by Agathi Dimitrouka set to music by Lloyd, leads into the first of the Greek Suite that forms the central element of the concert.  The Suite opens with Farantouri singing the original text of the 3rd century ‘Hymn to the Holy Trinity’, from the oldest known manuscript of a Christian hymn to contain both lyrics and musical notation.  Two Theodorakis songs follow – ‘In the Dry Soil’ and ‘In the Paradise Gardens’ before Eleni Karaindrou’s ‘Voyage to Cythera’ closes the first half.

The second part of the concert begins with the wordless ‘Prayer’ then continues the Greek Suite, here consisting of a succession of songs from different regions of Greece.  The encore, ‘Yanni mou’ (My Yanni), a traditional song from Epirus region, makes a rousing and passionate finale, with Lloyd blowing a delicious Coltrane-like riff.

The music throughout sweeps you along in a swirling, emotional river of sound. The performance represents a brilliant and successful blending of two musical cultures – western jazz and eastern Mediterranean folkloric – and embraces
many moods that are celebratory, yearning and melancholic.  For jazz-lovers, this is jazz of the highest order: Charles Lloyd has never sounded better, Jason Moran is positively inspired on piano, and the quartet as a whole perform alongside Farantouri with a commitment that is total and passionate.

There won’t be a better album this year; The Athens Concert is destined to become a classic of jazz and world music.

Lloyd’s collaboration with Greek singer Maria Farantouri demonstrates a rare ability to not just connect two seemingly unconnectable musics, but to create a seamless new whole with unmistakable yet non-paradoxical roots that would be surprising, were it not for the players involved.
– John Kellman, Allaboutjazz

This must have been one hell of a night. How rarely does the atmosphere at a concert come over as powerfully as this? It just bristles with electricity. Maria Farantouri – long associated with the music of composer Mikis Theodorakis – has one of those voices that would strike fear in the hearts of oppressors everywhere and summon hope in those of the oppressed. The way in which she and her two musicians combine with Lloyd and what is arguably his finest group astonishes. Lloyd himself is at his most elegiac on this record but Jason Moran rises just as spectacularly to the occasion, while Rogers and Harland play with an unrivalled sensitivity. There are too many wonderful moments to count here – a gorgeous ‘Requiem’ with a lyric in Greek by Agathi Dimitrouka, three lovely tunes by Theodorakis (‘Cactus’ and ‘Gardens of Paradise’) plus two beautiful suites arranged by pianist Farazis of traditional songs and I haven’t even scratched the surface.
– Duncan Heining, Jazzwise magazine

The Athens Concert: Kratissa ti zoi mou (I Kept Hold of My Life)

The Athens Concert: Vlefaro mou (Oh Eyelid)

The Athens Concert: Taxidi Sta Kythera (Voyage to Cythera)

The Athens Concert: Requiem

Epiphany, 1937 by George Seferis

The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.
I kept hold of my life, kept hold of my life, travelling
among the yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their tips;
night is falling.
I kept hold of my life; on your left hand a line
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I kept hold of my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness’.
I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I kept hold of my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.
This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief.
I kept hold of my life.
The snow and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.