Charles Llloyd, Arrows Into Infinity (ECM)
Charles Lloyd, Manhattan Stories (Resonance)
The steadfastly independent saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd stepped out of the limelight more than once, but even when he was inactive his recordings remained in demand. Lloyd is drawing renewed attention because of a film about his life and music, and an album of previously unreleased performances from a fertile early period of his career.
His million-selling 1966 album Forest Flower and the rock generation’s embrace of his band propelled Lloyd to a level of popular success rare among jazz musicians. Yet, a decade later he retreated to practice, meditate and vanquish drug addiction in idyllic surroundings on the northern California coast. In the 1970s he had stints with The Beach Boys and other rock groups and took time for academic study, but little was heard again from Lloyd in jazz until the early 1980s. His fascination with the teenaged French pianist Michel Petrucciani lured him back to public performance. They formed a quartet reminiscent of Lloyd’s mid-1960s band. The partnership inspired Lloyd to a new plateau of vigor, enthusiasm and daring. When he had launched Petrucciani’s career, he again disappeared into his haven in Big Sur. Illness put him in the hospital, and recovery from surgery kept him out of circulation for much of the 1980s. Allowed by his doctors to play again late in that decade, he began recording for ECM, expanding his considerable discography by more than fifteen albums for the German label, as of this writing.
The new film is called Arrows Into Infinity, after a phrase that Lloyd speaks at the beginning of the film and again, Zen-like, near its end when he discusses his philosophy of creativity. The visual artist Dorothy Darr— Mrs. Llloyd—and Jeffrey Morse produced the documentary with continuity that allows for side trips and surprises. They begin with Lloyd in his twenties or early thirties, telling an interviewer,
Am I screaming sometimes, am I bitter? Hell, yes, I’m bitter. I mean, I’ve got an insane amount of dues that I’ve paid.
The film follows the sweep of the 76-year-old’s career from its beginning when he was a teenager in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Under the spell of Lester Young and Charlie
Parker, he grew up influenced by pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., who was six years older. As a teenager, he played with trumpeter Booker Little, alto saxophonist Frank Strozier and pianist Harold Mabern, fellow Memphians who also went on to substantial careers. He was in blues bands, including Howling Wolf’s and B.B. King’s, but when Swing Journal editor Kiyoshi Koyama asks him about his tenor sax sound, he answers that it came from Young, whom Billie Holiday nicknamed “The President.”
I can play strong, but I like something about the ballads and the tenderness that Prez had. It affected me.
Lloyd attracted fans well beyond the teens and twenty-somethings seduced by Forest Flower who packed San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium when he appeared. The admirers included many of his contemporaries in post-bop music, among them pianist Herbie Hancock, who says in the film,
He had his own sound. Nobody ever sounded like Charles Lloyd. He just captured a certain element that was flowing, almost like a flowing river, cascades of sound that almost had kind of an environmental aspect to it.
In the course of the film, the viewer is treated to extended performances with Cannonball Adderley; Lloyd’s path-finding first quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette, including bits of a concert performance so successful that it made them persona non grata in the Soviet Union; Lloyd and Petrucciani playing in the Big Sur house; Lloyd and his new quartet with pianist Jason Moran; Lloyd with the Indian tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain; in duet with his old Los Angeles pal drummer Billy Higgins; an all-star encounter with Gerri Allen, John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson and Billy Hart. We seem him play pool but, unfortunately, not music, with Ornette Coleman.
Affinity with the natural world, implied in Hancock’s description, is a current through much of the film. We feel water’s importance to him when we see Lloyd and Dorothy Darr on the sand as the Pacific pounds into Big Sur’s beach and monumental rocks, and again in a sequence of Lloyd and Petrucciani on a bluff overlooking the ocean. We hear it as he talks about his birth when the Mississippi River was at record flood stage in Memphis.
Near the end of the film, now in his seventies, bitterness subdued, Lloyd accepts the rewards of experience, even painful experience.
There’s some that say, the closer we are to the light, the longer our shadow is behind us. And, we can’t really lug that thing with us. We have to know that it’s there and integrate it into our life and our work.
About his music, he says,
It might not be fully understood by everyone all the time, but people come to me and say they get something from it, or not. But for me, it’s the last night of the play, and they can boo or applaud. I have to sing my song, in whatever manifestation. However it’s given to me is how it’s going to come through.
Here’s a promotional preview of the film:
In the Darr-Morse documentary, Robbie Robertson of the rock group The Band mentions an album that brought Lloyd praise and attention a year before the Monterey Jazz Festival version of “Forest Flower” became a best seller. Of Course, Of Course (1965) was one of three studio LPs that Lloyd made for Columbia. It featured guitarist Gabor Szabo, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. With seven original compositions by Lloyd and two standards, it has remained an underground favorite, often hard to find. In the liner notes, producer George Avakian wrote, “…it is rare that one musician can cover so much ground so effectively—from explosive, hard-driving blowing to ballad playing of extreme sensitivity and downright voluptuosness.”
Now, Resonance Records has released a two-CD set of 1965 performances that have the qualities Avakian lauded, plus the excitement of a band playing for receptive audiences. One disc is from a concert at New York’s Judson Hall, now defunct; the other from a gig at Slug’s Saloon, a lamented lower East Side Manhattan bar that during its eight years of existence was noted for informed, appreciative and often raucous patrons. The energy flowing between band and audience, particularly at Slug’s, is a vital component of the music. The drummer is Pete LaRoca Sims, who equaled Williams’ energy but whose work had its own polyrhythmic character. Lloyd and Szabo met in Chico Hamilton’s quintet in their California days and developed a symbiotic relationship. In their improvising here, the two generate counterpoint and polyphony so unbounded, and at the same time so logical and orderly, that it makes much of what was being touted as free jazz in the sixties seem puerile posturing. Their single-minded interaction is stunning in two versions of the Szabo piece called “Lady Gabor” featuring Lloyd on flute, and a performance of Lloyd’s landmark composition “Sweet Georgia Bright.” Sims has a long story-telling solo on “Georgia.”
Lloyd’s way with ballads, praised by Avakian as voluptuous, is evident on his “How Can I Tell You”—not to be heard again on record for 30 years—and the early moments of “Dream Weaver,” later prominent in the repertoire of his Jarrett-McBee-DeJohnette quartet. This “Dream Weaver” evolves into another prime example of the empathy between Szabo and Lloyd. “Slug’s Blues,” evidently devised on the gig, finds Lloyd in the deep tonal region of his tenor, then ranging into stratospheric harmonic adventuring that might have caused his old blues boss Howlin’ Wolf to raise an eyebrow. Carter shows in his solo that by ’65 he was one of the masters of the instrument. His tone, propulsion and hand-in-glove rhythmic relationship with Sims are central to the success of this collection.
Following John Coltrane’s rise to stardom in the “Giant Steps” era, it became a knee jerk reaction among critics to peg new tenor saxophonists as Coltrane disciples. Sometimes, the critical term of art was “clone.” Lloyd, Wayne Shorter and any number of other tenor players who emerged in Coltrane’s wake were victims of such tribal Newspeak. To conclude that Shorter and Lloyd were copyists required failure to listen. After half a century, this important recording provides new evidence that from his early years, Charles Lloyd was Charles Lloyd.
For a brief Rifftides review of Lloyd’s quartet at the 2014 Ystad Jazz Festival in Sweden, go here.