Charles Lloyd’s ecstatic melody on his 85th


On the cusp of Charles Lloyd’s 85th birthday—we’ll join the master in celebration at Saturday’s live performance at The Soraya—the acclaimed tenor saxophonist and flutist stands at the summit of jazz. A master improviser whose musical ethos was forged in the crucible of 1960s musical freedom, Lloyd has been a restless and unpredictable explorer on a quest toward transcendent music. As part of The Soraya’s Jazz at Naz festival, and in a big musical birthday party, Lloyd will meet two trios of his favorite younger players. His ‘Ocean Trio’ with pianist Gerald Clayton and guitarist Anthony Wilson will alternate sets with his ‘Chapel Trio,’ with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Larry Grenadier, in what promises to be a jazz tour de force.

charles lloyd at 80, photo dorothy darr via npr

Lloyd has always been an individual stylist on the tenor saxophone. John Coltrane’s forceful, often relentless “sheets of sound” was the prevalent model in the 1960s New Thing school of playing, but Lloyd reveled in melodic invention. His sound was lighter and it moved mercurially, often sliding effortlessly into overtones and multi-phonics. Few players of any era have endlessly calibrated their sounds and tonalities as Lloyd. He was the only modernist to bring Lester Young’s floating melody ethos to avant-garde tenor saxophone. He also looked for the spaces in the music that were ripe for creative phrasing and rhythm. “On the East Coast,” Lloyd said in 1999, “they play Afro Cuban and Puerto Rican Latin sounds. But in California—especially in Los Angeles—the Latin music we grow up on is Mexican. And the rhythms are totally different.”  

As an adolescent in Memphis, Lloyd played in blues bands, backing the likes of B.B. King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Rosco Gordon and Howlin’ Wolf. With his best friend, trumpeter Booker Little, Lloyd came under the tough-love tutelage of jazz saxophonist George Coleman. While still in his teens, Lloyd came west and enrolled at the University of Southern California. Studying Béla Bartók during the day, Lloyd could played in the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, and in pit bands, backing such as Chilean bolero legend Lucho Gatica. Lloyd circulated in the most forward-looking Los Angeles jazz circles, exchanging with trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, bassists Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, and Albert Stinson, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and drummer Billy Higgins.

His first important band association was in the quintet of drummer Chico Hamilton—stepping into the reed chair after Eric Dolphy’s exit. Lloyd’s compositions were so well-received that Hamilton made Charles the band’s musical director. He brought in trombonists Garnett Brown and George Bohanon, bassist Stinson, and guitarist Gabor Szabo, and the resulting ensemble combustion was like nothing else in the music. Szabo’s unique harmonic tang shared the frontline and also maintained an oblique chordal bedrock. “Gabor kinda played across the time,” Lloyd said in 1999. “And I can do all of that–I can play across the time, but I come from the South, so I know where the swing is too. And I know how to move the rhythm section around. Gabor didn’t have that but he had lyricism and that twang, and he could bend notes; I thought we had a wonderful rapport together.”

A brief interlude in the band of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley coincided with Lloyd’s first album as a leader, Discovery! (Columbia 1964). Lloyd’s collaborations with cutting-edge musicians began his history of leading legendary bands. His late 1960s quartet (with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette) set a standard for group interaction and it enjoyed commercial success. No other jazz band of the era had as large a profile in rock music venues: One month they played the Fillmore, the next, the old Soviet Union. That unit also introduced hit records, “Dream Weaver,” “Sombrero Sam,” and “Forest Flower.” Write-ups in the jazz press, as well as LIFE and Playboy indicated that Lloyd broke through to new audiences. Very few jazz players have matched Lloyd’s continual quest for the new; at the beginning of the 1970s, he was recording with the Beach Boys.

But the high-profile touring and recording schedules came with a price. He moved to Big Sur, recording for the boutique Pacific Arts label. By the end of the decade, a reader asked in a national jazz magazine: What happened to Charles Lloyd? He was living in a period of retreat and reflection that, by 1981, looked like a self-imposed exile. But 18-year-old French pianist Michel Petrucciani—three feet tall and struggling with his “glass bones” condition—sought Lloyd out. “I had been reading ancient texts about a young man with a bent frame,” Lloyd said, “and then this little man with a bent frame and a special talent showed up at my door, and it was like providence.” Their collaborations revitalized Lloyd the player and bandleader. The little man with the big heart was a lyrical poet whose romanticism was leavened by rhythmic vitality and in-the-moment improvisation. Lloyd was suddenly on the biggest jazz stages in America and Europe.

“I need guys who can dance on all kinds of shores in my music,” he said. The Lloyd Trios come out of intense musical alliances, but ones that sometimes operate by faith, rather than sight. Guitarist Bill Frisell, a thoughtful guitar omnivore who has expanded—if not exploded–the notion of musical Americana, first took the stage with Lloyd without rehearsal. The harmonic content and spatial considerations each made for the other made for low-key fireworks. Guitarist Anthony Wilson (son of bandleader and composer Gerald Wilson) is a low-volume player with attention to space and an instinct for the pretty notes.

Lloyd has pronounced bassist Larry Grenadier as “a jewel and a discovery.” Their history began on Lloyd’s The Water is Wide, the first ECM album (1999) to inaugurate a very fruitful series of recordings for the mature saxophonist. With no prior meeting before the recording session, Lloyd was delighted with Grenadier’s tone and strength.

Pianist Gerald Clayton began working with Lloyd not long after the association with Frisell began in 2013. Though “Bells on Sand” (Blue Note 2022) was a quartet album, with bassist-father John Clayton and drummer Justin Brown, proof of Lloyd’s approbation of the young keyboardist was encapsulated in the duet they recorded, “Peace Invocation.”

Blue Note Records recently released three separate CDs under the banner of Charles Lloyd Trios. They are Chapel (Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan); Ocean, (Clayton and Wilson); and Sacred Thread, (percussionist Zakir Hussein and guitarist Julian Lage). That kind of record label endorsement is scarcely heard of in contemporary jazz, and it’s an indication of the historic nature of this octogenarian force-of-nature’s stature and abilities.

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

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