Off Piste: Never out of the groove

Alex Danchev is entranced by the lyricism and virtuosity of jazz master Charles Lloyd

June 5, 2008

On 11 September 2001, Charles Lloyd and his quintet were due to open at the Blue Note in New York. The jazz club is close to Ground Zero. As the smoke rose from the ruins, Lloyd paced the city, meditating on life and death. In Greenwich Village he met the critic Stanley Crouch. The two men sat in front of a bakery and Lloyd told stories of his early days as a daredevil saxophonist in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, where he made the acquaintance of the tumultuous Ornette Coleman - he of the ragged cry and chortling squeak - and his beloved Billy Higgins, the master drummer who left town, as Lloyd put it, a few months before, while waiting for a third liver transplant.

Lloyd and Higgins discovered a profound sympathy. Temperamentally, they were made for each other. "When the spirit is blowing, I know I have to hoist my sails to catch the breeze," says Lloyd, characteristically. The spirit blew in Higgins. As an improviser he was a kind of co-conspirator. "When Higgins sat down," wrote Crouch, "one realised that swing, at its essence, was the pulsation of goodwill." He smiled a lot but said little. One night, when they really did swing, he turned to Lloyd and remarked, "I didn't know you felt that way. We'd better stop dating and start going steady." After Higgins's death Lloyd released the memorial Hyperion with Higgins (2002). "It is with a heavy heart for losing him, and a boundless joy for knowing him, that I dedicate this recording to my dear brother Billy Higgins. He took us all... on his magic carpet to the Hyperions."

After 9/11 the Blue Note was dark for three days. On the fourth day Lloyd was permitted to play. Amid the trauma, the club was packed tight. Crouch was there. Lloyd was in a high state of imagination. He played well all evening, but the clincher was a composition of his own called Sweet Georgia Bright, a number that recurs on his albums, summarising and recapitulating much of what has happened in jazz over the past 40 years.

That night at the Blue Note, in defiance and remembrance, Lloyd cast his spell. "It began as an out-of-tempo duet with pianist Geri Allen that took a number of tonal directions," Crouch recorded, "the melody appearing at first in snippets that gradually took on more presence until the whole line emerged... Something resembling a chromatic etude gave way to a variety of little melodies that implied the theme, which Lloyd used to splinter and redirect when the band began to play. He would suddenly insert the song and began swinging so hard that the other musicians could hardly catch their breath, and then he would disappear... As the fire rose, Lloyd came back in and took a long steaming feature on the tenor (saxophone), bringing all the freedom that Coleman had given to the music while crossbreeding it with the detail that Coltrane was known for, focusing every bit of it with all of the Memphis underpinnings that the town had given in all the ways that the South passes on greatness to its people."

Charles Lloyd was born in 1938 in Memphis, "a strange place to be born, but what can I say? You choose your parents well or wherever the Creator drops you off." His exotic lineage - African, Cherokee, Mongolian and Irish - is celebrated in All My Relations (1995). He embraced world music before world music; it was his heritage.

He did not choose his mother well: she was always leaving him on other people's doorsteps. He grew up in a big house, a loner, familiar with the Blues and the Gospel. His mother rented rooms to musicians from the big bands; his grandfather built a church in the neighbourhood. At three he wanted to play the saxophone. At six he wanted to marry Billie Holiday. Finally, when he was nine, his parents gave in and he got his saxophone. "I went crazy with joy. I played everywhere, even in the bathtub, couldn't put it down."

Lionel Hampton and some of his big band came to stay. The spindling Lloyd was taken backstage; awestruck, he remembered Hamp, always quiet, reading his Bible, and Joe Liggins, "The Honeydripper", writing out the music to Teardrops for him, straight off the record. At ten, Lloyd won first prize at an amateur show at the Memphis Palace. Basking in the applause, he was stopped in his tracks by a sharp-eared teenager in the wings, by the name of Phineas Newborn. "You need lessons bad!" Newborn scooped him up, delivered him to Mitchell's Hotel round the corner, knocked on Irvin Reason's door, announced, "he needs lessons", and left. "That was very painful at first (for my bruised little ego), but so sweet later on. Time for discipline, long tones, scales, sight reading, listening to Irvin, etc."

Lloyd's saviour, meanwhile, became his mentor. Newborn was a pianist. More than that, he was an experimentalist. He played Chopin and Beethoven out of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. So it was that, when still very young, Lloyd got Bird. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker - Bird - was the most dazzling saxophone virtuoso ever recorded - "the first modern ecstatic I had heard", as Lloyd recalled. Bird's attack, his timbre, his famous, joyous, treasonous improvisation, his sheer unadulterated brilliance, took the breath away. Lloyd clung to the radio, late at night, entranced. "We were dealing with higher laws, like Einstein. Bird discovered the atom and stuff like that."

The whippersnapper started to shape up. "I began working gigs with Blues cats, Rosco Gordon (Bobby "Blue" Bland was in his band), B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Ace." On his first gig with Gordon, they all piled into a beat-up station wagon and drove across the Mississippi into Arkansas. "I sat in the very back of the station wagon, mismatched blue suit and all. On the way there, Bobby said to me, 'Junior, you can mess up on any song you want, but if you mess up on Peaches I'm goin' to whip your ass. Peaches is my theme song.' I was scared all night, he was such a big man. During the intermission, at midnight, I ran to the station wagon to hide until the next set. Bobby came out looking for me and found me in the car. I trembled as he reached for me. But he hugged me and said, 'Junior, ain't nobody played Peaches as good as you played it tonight.' To this day, I still don't know which song was Peaches, but I love it when I can sing my song."

In 1956, he left Memphis for Los Angeles, enrolling at the University of Southern California, where he took composition and studied Bartok, jamming wherever and whenever he could. In 1961, he was summoned to join Chico Hamilton's modern jazz band in New York. He moved in with his best friend from high school, the trumpeter Booker Little, who died of uraemia that same year, at the age of 23. Little was wise beyond his years. He gave Lloyd some advice he never forgot: "He said that we have to work on our character too." For the moment, the advice was shelved. This was the 1960s. Lloyd tuned in, turned on and took off. He hung with the cream - Miles, Monk, Max Roach. In 1964, he joined Cannonball Adderley. In 1966, he formed his own quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Cecil McBee (later Ron McClure) on bass. This quartet made history.

Lloyd is, among other things, a great talent spotter. Jarrett, then almost unknown, is a phenomenon. His performances are immeasurable. "These doings," reported Whitney Balliett, "cannot be classified except by saying that he plays an improvised piano music that anthologises much of the Western (classical and jazz) and Oriental music of the past couple of centuries. A Jarrett performance may reflect and refract Bill Evans, Indian ragas, Ray Bryant, Stephen Foster, Chopin, Dave Brubeck, Cecil Taylor, Beethoven, Art Tatum, Debussy, Bud Powell, Brahms, the Blues, Rachmaninov, Gospel music, Bach, Horace Silver, Lennie Tristano, flamenco music, folk songs, the Warsaw Concerto, McCoy Tyner, George Gershwin, the bolero, boogie-woogie, and Liszt." They are few who can cook with Jarrett. Lloyd is one. Jack DeJohnette is another. The quartet played jazz that broke bounds; they had a "crossover" appeal to rock audiences and the legions of the Grateful Dead. Their album Forest Flower (1966) became the first million-selling jazz record. Their leader became a star.

Whereupon, at the age of 30, Lloyd dropped out. This was no ordinary dropping-out, but a strategic withdrawal. Lloyd secluded himself in Big Sur, cleaned up, grew vegetables, studied Vedanta, "stayed in silence a lot" and worked on his character. He disappeared from view for the best part of 20 years.

In 1981, the silence was broken by a knock on the door. Michel Petrucciani had come to call, carrying his belongings in a plastic bag. In his native France, Petrucciani had been a child prodigy. Lloyd was in Santa Barbara; his wife, Dorothy Darr, admitted the visitor and asked him politely what he did in life. Petrucciani answered timidly that he tried to play a little piano. In a big room overlooking the Pacific stood a Steinway. Dorothy invited him to play. The gift was instantly recognisable. Dorothy phoned Lloyd, who listened to the piano in the background, jumped in his car, drove home - a four-hour drive - and got out a saxophone. They played like a dream all night.

Lloyd seems to have regarded the sudden irruption of "the little guy with the bent frame" as providential, a sign for him to repay his debt to the elders: the men who mentored him in his besotted youth. In his maturity, he meditated on the past. "This is a deep tradition we come from, Master Higgins," he would say. "Tell me about it," Higgins would reply. Dedication to the tradition is a kind of imperative. Service, as he puts it, is what we are here for: serious service. He reformed a group, started touring again and introduced Petrucciani to the world.

After that burst, it was back to the silence of Big Sur. The return to recording was sporadic. In 1986, a near-death experience and emergency surgery caused a certain interruption. Eventually, in 1989, the moment arrived. "At a certain point, if you do the work, you can rise." He found his niche on the ECM label and a great late flowering began.

Charles Lloyd is just 70. His is an odyssey of the interior. Spiritually, he took up where John Coltrane left off. "For me," he says, "Trane is up there with J.S. Bach." Forty years ago, Philip Larkin lent a cool ear to one of his first albums and concluded: "If he has an individual quality I should say it is a tinge of romantic lyricism; Coltrane might say of Lloyd what Gertrude Stein said of Hemingway: 'You do something first, then someone else comes along and does it pretty.'"

The lyricism stands. Late Lloyd, however, is beyond pretty. Eleven albums over the past two decades constitute a body of late work that transcends Trane, genre, place and time. The elders mix freely, regardless of tribe. Lloyd plays tenor and alto saxophones, bass and alto flutes, and a modern ecstatic tarogato, a Hungarian folk instrument, which Mahler deployed for the Shepherd's Tune when directing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Mid-concert, he tells a long tale about "that cat Ricardo", who turns out to be Wagner himself. Format and personnel may vary, but the music is intricately interwoven; to all intents and purposes the 11 albums are one. Lloyd's work is not merely an accumulation but an oeuvre. Its signature fits the qualities extolled by Italo Calvino: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency. Young Lloyd once played a week with Duke Ellington. "If he keeps stirring this soup," said the man, "one day he'll have something."

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