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In my past two columns, I’ve detailed two inexplicable holes in my jazz collection—the legend of ‘20s Bix Beiderbecke and astonishing and prolific modern pianist Paul Bley.  In each case, I had been missing a seminal figure and an important influence on other musicians I loved.


This month, I decided to plug a more ambiguous gap in my collection, a musician of both great acclaim and some suspicion.  Saxophonist Charles Lloyd has traveled a huge distance in his career—from acclaimed sideman with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley to crossover star playing the Fillmore to Beach Boys’ sideman and purveyor of music for meditation.


cover art

Charles Lloyd

Rabo de Nube

(Ecm; US: Mar 2008)

To sum up, Lloyd has enjoyed periods of critical acclaim, popular celebration, eccentric withdrawal, and general trivialization.  Neither an essential stylist on his instrument nor an innovator who moved the music in a clear direction, Lloyd was easy to ignore if you came of age as a jazz fan any time after 1970.  For me, the question was not “Who is Charles Lloyd?” but “Who cares about Charles Lloyd?”


Charles Loyd’s Sound is Worth Collecting
That said, I’d heard of Lloyd because beginning in 1982, he became a curious “comeback” artist, a once-intriguing player who was suddenly back from nowhere.  Lured out of semi-retirement by pianist Michel Petrucciani, Lloyd returned as a breathy watercolor tenor player.  He sounded like gauzy Coltrane, but with appealing lyricism at the ready.  If Petrucciani sometimes sounded like Keith Jarrett, well that made sense as Lloyd’s most famous group, his 1966-69 quartet, was Jarrett’s launching pad.


And what had made that group so popular at a time when jazz was very nearly a dirty word?  Lloyd’s quartet had played the Fillmore and opened for rock bands, creating a true sensation with music that was entirely acoustic and instrumental.  The only other jazz musician to approach that kind of success in the face of the tidal wave of rock was Miles Davis.


Moreover, the string of pianists joining Lloyd’s various “comeback quartets” was astonishing: Petrucciani first, then Bobo Stenson, then Brad Mehldau followed by Geri Allen.  The news in recent months that Lloyd’s latest ECM album, Rabo de Nube (released this month) would feature pianist Jason Moran simply clinched it.  If these guys dug Lloyd, then who was I ignore him?


The Precocious Sideman
Before Lloyd became a crossover sensation, he burst on the scene as a composer and musical director for the Chico Hamilton Quintet.  It’s hard to recapture today just what jazz meant back in 1961.  Rock was still a teen upstart at the time, and jazz—particularly jazz that reeked of a certain button-down collegiate cool—represented a certain kind of hip.  Chico Hamilton’s groups played a chamber jazz (with reeds, guitar, cello, and drums) that came from the West Coast Cool School.


Lloyd, however, came from a more down-home tradition.  Born in Memphis in 1938, he gigged with B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland before making it to Los Angeles where he played with Gerald Wilson’s big band and found himself with Hamilton.  At the same time, Lloyd was a 23-year-old tenor player with ears, so the groundbreaking work of John Coltrane was also an urgent part of his sound.


The result can best be heard on Hamilton’s 1962 recording Man From Two Worlds, featuring eleven tunes by Lloyd and band perfectly straddling chamber jazz, pop sounds, and looser post-bop playing.  The group is piano-less and gets a wide-open sound from the intriguing guitar playing of Gabor Szabo.  On most tracks, Lloyd and Szabo combine for an ensemble sound that is substantial without being hefty.  Here you can find the debut recording of Lloyd’s tune “Forest Flower”, which would take a place of prominence in every phase of the man’s career.


Here, “Forest Flower” is a sunny and impossible-to-shake melody that alternates between a Latin feel and swing, spurring solos that blend urgency and relaxation is perfect titration.  The drawn-out second half of the tune (given more emphasis by Lloyd’s quartet) just noodles for a bit and then fades—a better and less indulgent conclusion than on more famous recordings. 


“Mallet Dance” primarily features Hamilton and Lloyd in duet, which reminds you of John Coltrane’s playing in isolation with his drummer, Elvin Jones.  And while there are certainly spots where Lloyd reaches high for a tone or where he plays modal flurries that show what the tenor player had learned from Trane, the tune is also a calypso—bringing to mind Sonny Rollins.  If Lloyd if typically heard as a Trane clone with a softer sound, that is not uniformly true here.


The gentle quality of Lloyd’s playing is, however, undeniable.  If Coltrane is often described as forbidding and harsh in tone, then Lloyd is an airy variant.  His tenor playing seems to echo the sound of his flute in a way.  On “Love Song to a Baby”, Szabo’s guitar punches the 3/4 rhythm but Lloyd plays as if he were trying to put the little fellow to sleep.  Not a bad thing, of course, but it lends at least some credence to the charge that Lloyd’s subsequent superstardom was partly due to his easy listening tone.


Lloyd, Superstar?
When Charles Lloyd busted out on his own, it was with a conventional-seeming quartet that, ultimately, busted some conventions.  What’s odd about tenor-plus-rhythm?  When the rhythm section is made up on Keith Jarrett on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, something different is going on.


The Charles Lloyd Quartet, almost overnight, became a huge jazz concert draw on the strength of its instinct for the dramatic.  “Forest Flower”, which appeared on the Chico Hamilton album, was the skeleton key, based on the group’s recorded 1966 performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival.  The cover of Forest Flower, Charles Lloyd at Monterey suggests some other elements at work.  There is Lloyd amidst an ecstatic solo: goateed and afro-ed, shades covering his eyes, wearing a cool leather coat.  If the rock audiences of this era wanted a jazz musician, surely this could be the guy.


“Forest Flower” in this setting is something altogether different.  The first part of the tune (“Sunrise”) is fairly conventional, though Jarrett’s solo is fleet and distinctive, and Lloyd plainly has developed a flair for the dramatic now that he has a thrilling drummer pushing him. 


But it’s the second half (“Sunset”) that is the tune’s selling point.  Here, the band plays a Latin two-chord vamp that amounts to a fairly static jam.  Lloyd allows his tenor solo to sound both light and highly vocalized with the proceedings building to an ecstatic harmonic experiment.  Jarrett, for his go-round, displays in embryonic form his signature whirling lyricism—including some of his moaning and even exploration with the hand plucking of piano strings. 


The Charles Lloyd Quartet, if I may, was a precursor to The Grateful Dead and Phish.  The audience loves it, and it certainly is an example of empathetic group playing, but the musical content itself is—again, if I may—masturbatory.


On the other tunes, Lloyd sometimes sounds like the sideman rather than the leader.  The quick and swinging “East of the Sun” is a tour de force for Jarrett, McBee, and DeJohnette, with the pianist’s solo sounding utterly invigorating—truly “out” in certain spots, but always returning to an elfin tonality.  Lloyd’s solo is the sound of a father desperately trying to keep up with his kids.  When he resorts to a long and dramatically-held high note, it sounds like a man’s legs giving out.


Lloyd’s tone remains appealingly gauzy.  On McBee’s “Song of Her”, he puts across the melody with sensitivity, nestled tight on the pocket of the rhythm section’s well-arranged ballad treatment.  Surely it’s no coincidence that the tune sounds a little like Coltrane’s “Naima”, but the great appeal of this group wasn’t to straight-up jazz fans (nor, certainly, to advocates of the avant-garde).  Rock audiences made Lloyd a star, cheering on his more self-indulgent noodling.  That, at least, is how Charles Lloyd at Monterey sounds 42 years later.


Lloyd Today
Checking out Charles Lloyd’s more recent work, however, turns me right around.  Though the “comeback quartet” with Petrucciani seemed to me imbalanced and uncertain, two more recent recordings are undeniable winners.


First, I could resist sampling 1998’s Voice in the Night, a quartet recording featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Dave Holland, and the drums of Billy Higgins.  Here, we have a third recording of “Forest Flower”, as all as a handful of newer Lloyd tunes, a Billy Strayhorn tune and “God Give Me Strength” by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello.


The new “Forest Flower” is quicker and lighter by design.  Higgins taps out the Latin groove on his frenetic high-hat, and Abercrombie is both tart and modern.  When the leader enters for his solo, he sounds like the same player from the ‘60s (airy and gentle) but with a more swinging approach to time in his improvisation.  He is puckish, quoting Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”, rather than trying to channel Coltrane’s sonic experimentation. 


This sense of fun continues through the “Sunset” portion, with Higgins’ impeccably musical drummer playing counterpoint to the conversation between guitar and tenor.  Instead of grandstanding for the crowd, these guys are having a smart good time.


“God Give Me Strength” is a perfect choice for this group.  Begun at a swinging gallop, the breathless melody emerges from nowhere and gives Lloyd a chance to take advantage of the way his still-thin tone blends into the group’s total sound.  Even better, perhaps, is the group’s approach to pure ballads, with Lloyd’s “Requiem” featuring a natural statement of the melody mostly before the band has even developed a clear sense of the tune’s time.


Lloyd’s Cabo de Nube is even more impressive.  The rhythm section is the equal of Jarrett/McBee/DeJohnette: Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums.  This band combines the freedom of the ‘60s quartet with the lack of sentimentality of truly up-to-date jazz.  And Lloyd’s tenor playing rises to the challenge.  His tone is no more gruff, but his playing is more driven and lean.  Almost entirely gone are the Trane-isms.  And the compositions are less pop songs than they are jazz tunes that surprise and syncopate.


It helps that Moran is on-board for this live concert.  No contemporary jazz pianist is so likely to surprise the listener with his note choice and his rhythmic approach.  On the opener “Prometheus” alone, Moran suggests hip-hop, stride piano, the breakaway lyricism of Don Pullen, and the gravitas of classical music in a Romantic vein.  This omnivorous quality, however, does not overshadow the whole group sound.  Just as Jarrett—for all his out-jazz fire in the early stage of his career—had a knack for the pop/gospel groove that made the ‘60s quartet accessible to kids, Moran shares a wavelength with Lloyd.


On “Migration of Spirit”, Moran bombards just enough like McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane’s great partner from 1960-65.  It’s not a Tyner imitation, but there is a kinship in Moran’s low-note-rumbling that helps you to hear the leader’s continuing debt to Coltrane’s ballad playing.  On “Booker’s Garden”, Lloyd features his flute, and Moran plays with a transparency that keeps the rhythm section open and full of wind—off-kilter but still lyrical.  In that tune’s second half, all the players get a high-energy solo as well, with Moran jubilant in all registers.


“La Coline de Monk” is a tour de force duet for Moran and Lloyd alone, with the pianist starting things off with a stuttering free essay on how traditional jazz piano styles remain central to today’s music.  The contemporary stride section is like an arrow shot straight through from James P. Johnson to Thelonious Monk to the day after tomorrow.  Lloyd proves himself just as witty and daring as he alternately quotes Monk, breaks down his tenor sound, then joins in rhapsodic passages with the pianist.


The honors in Rabo de Nube are not limited to Lloyd and Moran, however.  Drummer Eric Harland proves himself a worthy successor to the best musician that Lloyd associated with regularly—Billy Higgins.  The two men thought enough of each other to make a string of records together, including a richly exploratory duet record, Which Way is East (ECM, 2004). 


Harland proves himself nearly as dancing and joyous as his veteran predecessor on the new disc.  “Ramanujan” finds Lloyd working on a more exotic reed instrument, with Harland creating a completely unique Middle Eastern groove that nevertheless swings.  The disc’s title track is equally demanding of the young drummer, requiring a ballad approach that suggests Latin groove with greatest possible subtlety.


A Revelation
Of the three musicians I have featured in my 2008 columns as surprising “gaps in my jazz collection”, Lloyd is both the least uniformly essential and the most revelatory.


Bley is an innovator I had unfairly neglected but whose work perhaps thrilled me less than it informed me.  Beiderbecke is a central (and, by me, ignored) voice from the past who has been so absorbed into the vocabulary of his instrument that I don’t find myself dashing back to his records.


Lloyd is, comparatively, a minor figure—neither an innovator nor a virtuoso on the saxophone, and a historical figure more because of the sensation he caused than the music he made.  But.  He had and still has a flair for attracting great sidemen and forming bands that rise above his own playing.  The 1960’s quartet was an unbalanced group that knew more than a thing or two about thrilling an audience.  And his recent groups are even better: vibrant and complete and daring within the tradition.


For me, it is not the Lloyd compositions or his solos that rivet my attention.  It is chemistry of Higgins, Abercrombie, Holland, and Lloyd on “God Give Me Strength” or the dash of joy between Moran, Rogers, Harland, and Lloyd on “Sweet Georgia Bright”.


This month Charles Lloyd turned 70—with his vital new album coming out just four days earlier.  That he’s still in the game—no, fully on top of the game—at this stage of life is inspiring.  “What’s ahead?” you want to ask.


And that’s the ultimate jazz question.  What is ahead?  It’s the question that keeps you going, as a player or a fan.  And, alas, it keeps my record collection growing.


Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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