A man tells his personal truth, with such loving passion and honesty and intelligence and fire, and ecclesiastical everything-hes-got, on his knees. And it transforms the mundane, it transforms the molecules.
Charles Lloyd. Improvising.
There is no time, there is now. When I hear these guys playing in the now, when I hear Yardbird goin through there with brilliance at the speed of light, and modulating in all kinds of ultrapolations and interpolations and all kinds of semidemiquavers and all kinds of beauty, what is that? Its kind of like the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita.
Lloyds voice drops down and he pelts it out: He knows bliss in the Atman and wants nothing else. Cravings torment the heart. He renounces cravings. I called him illumined, not shaken by adversity, not hankerin after happiness, free from fear, free from anger, free from greed, free from things of desire.
When I play, time, it goes away, and the music is all thats going on. Theres this vacuum state where you go to quantum mechanics, where before the creative process theres this trembling being, this quality of the infinite elixirs of the unmanifest, the absolute, before the absolute comes into the relative. Thats the thing that I have adoration for. We live for these times when the music happens and were whole.
The incantatory way he talks, in those light Memphis rhythms 34 it almost seems that Lloyd is not speaking to me; its more like a vernacular prayer in which were both participants. His speech, in other words, is like his music. He doesnt do many interviews, claiming, as one who communicates through his sax or flute, that hes unskilled with words. Hes wrong, though.
This cruel world is not set up for you to sing your song. So were going to sing it anyway. We make a direct connection with the Man, and render unto God whats Gods, and render unto Caesar whats Caesars. But Caesar cant come in there, because you hear the sound, and Brahman is in the sound.
When I grew up, all the old-timers told you, Youve got to have your own sound 34 but you wont have the real stuff for 20, 30 years. Its in your minds ear. Its like a Holy Grail--type thing. Im gonna fess up, I dont have it to this day.
Mr. Lloyd may believe he hasnt perfected his sound, but whatever sound hes got, its deep, as deep as anybodys, and it keeps getting better. Listening to some of his 60s recordings 34 Dream Weaver, Forest Flower, Journey Within and more, which sold in rock-star quantities at the time 34 I hear passion, beauty and a searching soul. But in the way he plays today, I hear those things, and beyond the search theres more finding, more arrival, more peace. The process is never complete, of course.
The sound is like a carrot on a stick. The closer you get to it, then Hell move it. If I had it, Id plain lay down. Id go back into the forest. Cause I dont think theres a reason to stay around here, with the level of ignorance that exists on this planet, unless you can do some serious service.
Service he has done. Lloyds music has never been just a way to make a living; its a pathway to . . . well, you heard him. And he wants to keep the path clear. When he speaks of going back into the forest, its not a metaphor. In 1969, year of Woodstock and Altamont, he disbanded the famous quartet hed formed with Keith Jarrett (piano), Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Cecil McBee or Ron McClure (bass) well before theyd milked out their udder, and he got off the bus, going into seclusion in Malibu and then Big Sur. He wouldnt return to full-time performing and recording for nearly 20 years.
My mother had just died, and things were gettin kind of harsh. Theyd killed Dr. King, the climate was changing, there was a polarity of people losing that kind of fortitude that it takes to be a warrior for peace. I went to work on myself, so that I would be more equipped to serve the Creator and music and mankind, and I had to face the mirror of my own inadequacies.
After that period of reflection, 1989 saw the first fruits of a love match with the Munich label ECM and its guiding light, Manfred Eicher. The pairing, Lloyd suggests, was more than a coincidence; he feels that Eichers famous aesthetic of spare beauty derives in part from the seeds the windman blew with him when he toured Europe several times in the 60s. So hooking up with ECM was almost a reunion, a family tie re-established.
The Water Is Wide, the latest of the seven albums Lloyd has made for the label, revives another old connection: with Los Angeles. Lloyd lived here for several years beginning in 1956; it was during that time that he met Billy Higgins, and he and the drummer have been close ever since. Eicher, having observed how naturally the two collaborated on the 1997 soundtrack to the Alan Rudolph film Afterglow and on last years deeply soulful ECM recording Voice in the Night, suggested they do a special project together; he even made the unusual concession of letting Lloyd and his wife, artist Dorothy Darr, act as producers.
That blew my dress way up, says Lloyd, still twitching with excitement several months after the fact. I wanted Master Higgins to have his own drum kit, I wanted him to have his own support system, I wanted him to be able to take off and go to the mosque when he wants to, and he teaches over there at UCLA. Held over from Voice was John Abercrombie, avatar of guitaristic penetration and taste, an ideal foil for the saxist. Lloyd also brought in Brad Mehldau, a big-minded, ghost-fingered young pianist who lives in L.A., and added Mehldaus bassist, Larry Grenadier. He had everything he wanted. It was like a state of grace suspended.
But the project strained him. I was like a madman. I didnt sleep. I planned this recording for a long time. One thing I knew before going in: I wanted to bring something tender to the world.
Lloyd thinks maybe his obsession with tenderness is rooted in a childhood insufficiency thereof. His mother wasnt ready for parenthood, their home life was unstable, and young Charles got left with relatives and strangers a lot. I felt kind of abandoned and like a loner in this world. My mother had these large mammary glands 34 they were so beautiful, I wanted to kiss em and snuggle up to them, yknow. His voice is high, then it drops way down. No parts was for me, man.
Music and spirituality helped fill his soul. I felt a presence, and something began to inform me. My grandfather built the church in his area, but Id be afraid, because big sisters would jump up sanctified-style and start running around the house 34 man, I was scared I was gonna get trampled. At the other end of town, my aunts and my cousins would take me to the Catholic school, and those nuns would beat me on the hands all day, and I couldnt learn anything there, so I went to public school in the fourth grade, and this wonderfully warm teacher, Miss Tandy, she gave me such loving vibes that I made connections.
I started hearing this music 34 that was the real God connection. The music was real, more real than I can tell you.
In the 40s and early 50s, Lloyds Memphis was charged with sound. Names of contemporaries are constantly spilling out of his mouth: Hank Crawford, George Coleman, and tons of guys that you dont even know their names. Willie Mitchell, who later produced Al Green, had a big band playin like Dizzys. Everybody in the neighborhood played music. Id go by these guys houses as a little kid and tremble, because I would hear the music coming out of the door. Dukes band, Basies band, Diz used to come through town. I heard Mr. Armstrong. My best friend in high school was Booker Little 34 a prodigious trumpeter who would later star with Eric Dolphy and Max Roach, and die of uremia at 23. I also played with blues bands 34 Howlin Wolf, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker, B.B. King, Lowell Fulson.
Those guys that I grew up with, they took the warmth from the humidity, but not the stench of it. As easily as he jumps octaves on his horn, Lloyd makes a connection between Southern racism and Southern humidity. Though he doesnt look exotic by Los Angeles standards, his lineage (African, Cherokee, Mongolian and Irish, celebrated in his All My Relations) got him the wrong kind of attention in his hometown.
The poor crackers down there, living in a climate filled with that kind of humidity and that degree of ignorance, they were very slow. And my tempo 34 he snaps his fingers quickly 34 was in there, you know. We were dealing with higher laws, like Einstein. Bird discovering the atom and stuff like that. Phineas Newborn, this great pianist comin out of Art Tatum, playin Chopin and Beethoven, turned me on to Bird.
But Lloyd was forced to leave Memphis in a hurry. My mother had to ship me out, because the cops were chasing us. We were playing at these clubs, and these white girls were going crazy over us, and the cops were flippin out. Redneck kind of stuff.
He was 18, and the year was 1956. He lammed to Chicago and then to Los Angeles, where it didnt take long for him to feel at home, because There was a community of people drunk with this thing that Bird had laid out. The names come spilling forth again: Dexter Gordon, Billy Higgins, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Larance Marable, Frank Butler, Frank Morgan, Sonny Clark, Walter Norris, Gerald Wilson. Jam sessions, practice sessions, nightclub performances every day and night, at the exact moment when the tight rigor of bebop was mutating into extended free improvisation. And for Lloyd, that was just the jazz side of things. He also enrolled at USC, where he took composition, and studied Bartok.
When he graduated, Lloyd began to teach. Then, in 1961, he got a call from Collette, whom he honors as a spiritual father to Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, James Newton and many others, including himself. Dolphy, whod replaced Collette in drummer Chico Hamiltons groundbreaking chamber-jazz ensemble, had split to join Mingus multidimensional riot. Hamilton needed a new windman.
Lloyd was launched. He moved to New York, where he hung with Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Miles Davis and the other prime movers, in 1964 joining Cannonball Adderleys hot soul-jazz band on the recommendation of Quincy Jones, whom hed met in Memphis years before.
Then, in 1966, just in time for the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Lloyd gathered his quartet with Jarrett, DeJohnette and McBee, and blew the minds of the Love Children. He transported em at the Newport and Monterey festivals. He rocked em at the Fillmore, even at his first fill-in gig there, when the kids had no clue they were grooving to jazz. He wasnt trying to cross over; it was just that the R&B influences and long-spieling excursions that had been creeping into jazz through the likes of Art Blakey and John Coltrane were entering mass alternaculture consciousness through the Rolling Stones and the Byrds, and Stan Getz had already bridged the gap between jazz and Latin to make radio hits like The Girl From Ipanema. Lloyd cradled it all in gently rolling rhythms and memorable riffs, and, without compromising anything, became a pop star.
He influenced the Grateful Dead and The Band. He did acid with Jimi Hendrix. Members of the Jefferson Airplane dropped by with mounds of blow. The late 60s rushed by like the Midnight Special.
During our main interview, at his home in Santa Barbara, Lloyd concentrates on the roots and motivation of his music. Then, after talking about the day to his wife, he starts to think maybe hes whitewashed himself a trifle. So he calls me up.
Okay: This was a guy who knew Owsley; who popped amphetamines like M&Ms; who was glad to partake of whatever drifted his way. You take DMT, and you go to ancient China, and you look at your friend, and his hair is like huge ropes, he says. Sometimes we played at the Fillmore, and I just held my instrument, didnt make any music. Bill Graham was mad at me, but I didnt need the flute 34 I was connected. One time he was with his band in a car on an Arizona road, everybody high, and a semi jackknifed directly in front of them. We closed our eyes, and when we opened them . . . we were on the other side.
Drug use, indeed, was the Information Superhighway of the time. Master Higgins calls it tragic magic, he says. Once youve gotten high, its like, Hello! Drugs were a constant companion for many years. But even when I was doing drugs, I was seeking the higher thing. My intensity never abated.
Now he starts to feel like hes making excuses. I dont want to come off as high above it, he says, admitting that he still struggles with the urge. And he emphasizes that hes far from encouraging young people to indulge.
When Lloyd went into the woods in 1969, getting clean was one of his primary objectives, along with a general re-orientation. There have been similar disappearances and returns in the world of artists, but not many: You think of Sonny Rollins in jazz, Gauguin in painting, Castaneda in mysticism. Sometimes, like J.D. Salinger, a they never come back.
Lloyds return to performing was sporadic. He played festivals here and there, taught. A lifelong spiritual bent led him to begin studying Vedanta (based on the Hindu Vedas) with Ritajananda in 1982; hes still absorbed in the discipline. In 1986, a serious intestinal ailment hurled him into emergency surgery while he was visiting Santa Barbara. Since he already owned property there, his convalescence seemed a good enough reason to stay.
With 20 years separating Lloyds 60s recordings from the ECM years, youd expect differences, and theyre present: In place of an exuberant, virtuosic free-for-all, you now hear quiet consideration, a combination of austerity and sensuality, a feeling that the balance of the universe hangs in every note. These recent recordings will never sound dated.
And the new The Water Is Wide is one of the best. While beauty is the hymn book here, and the whole congregation sings together, there are moments when individual inflections make the ecstasy almost painful. The way Abercrombies guitar gently introduces Prayer, then unites with Lloyds tenor, then dances with it in simple harmony, is as perfect a metaphor for spiritual devotion as you can get. Lloyds yearning tribute to Billie Holiday, Lady Day, is really made whole at the end, when Higgins turns up a dense cymbal rush like a bright lamp burning its last, then lets it fade. Lloyd returns to some touchstone songs he remembers from his youth; a trio of gorgeous Ellington revivals suits the mood; and the bossa nova Figure in Blue swings with such all-encompassing welcome that you could play it on the radio all day and nobody would complain.
But a couple of numbers are just unprecedented. The Monk and the Mermaid (a.k.a. hermit Lloyd and former competitive swimmer Darr) is a sax-piano dialogue that pulls involving music out of an ordinary conversation -- wandering, sometimes a little antagonistic, yet coherent. And despite what our ears are used to, another piano-sax duet, Ballade and Allegro, creates intuitively compelling melodies, phrase after phrase, in a seeming structural vacuum. Brad solved a musical problem, says Lloyd quietly, that youd have to be Beethoven to figure out.
Throughout, Lloyd spreads his tenor sound like a transparent membrane, a window through which you can see past the clouds.
Before agreeing to an in-person interview, Lloyd calls me up to see whether I understand his music well enough that I wont be wasting his time. After he discovers that I dont, that all Ive got to offer are good intentions, he invites me up to Santa Barbara anyway. He and Darr and I meet at La Super-Rica for lunch -- hes hypoglycemic and always has to eat at the same time of day.
In person, his Native American ancestry is plainer than in any picture Ive seen, his teeth blazing out against coppery skin. His straight white hair is cropped close. Hes half a head taller than me standing up; when we sit, Im looking down at him. You have the advantage of me, sir, he says. Im all legs.
Once hes tactfully determined that Im carrying no concealed weapons, Lloyd lets thin, smart Darr drive their vehicle home so he can get in my heap and guide me up into the hills. They live in a tasteful Southwestern-style compound created by Darr, who numbers painting, photography and architectural design among her skills; Lloyd bought the land many years ago, when it was still cheap. They grow much of their own food. He loves avocados.
Im here to fess up right now, I dont function so well on terra firma, says Lloyd. Fortunately, I got a mate who makes me look good. She keeps me pregnant in the dark 34 Im always having these little babies, these songs. I live in my own world. But I cant find my way down the street.
On the way, he gets a notion. Turn in here. Its the driveway to the Vedanta temple he attends. We remove our shoes, and he brings me inside. Everythings carved to engender the kind of complex but serene impression that a lot of Eastern art does, a presentation that makes the gilt ornateness of the Vatican look like a West Hollywood fireplace ensemble. The ceiling is supported by individual dark-polished logs. Its cool and dim. We sit in a couple of the chairs, for I dont know how long. I have no inclination to move. I think of this later, when the suns lowering and Im about to drive back to insane Los Angeles: The whole afternoon Im with Charles Lloyd, I dont look at my watch once.
Some way or another, were outside the Vedanta temple. My ears are open out here in the country, and I can breathe. I want to show you something, says Lloyd. We go over to a shrub alongside the parking lot. Its a rosemary bush.
Lloyd takes a green-needled branch between his palms, rubs it briskly. A fresh, powerful, wild atmosphere rises up through my nose and mouth, and spreads through my body.
I mumble something, at a loss for words. Lloyd looks me in the eye and smiles, like he just discovered the atom.
The Charles Lloyd Quartet, featuring John Abercrombie, Billy Hart and Jeffrey Littleton, plays the Knitting Factory Thursday, October 12.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.