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.
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.
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.
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, 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.’
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’
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 (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.