News Column

Still cookin': Saxophonist Charles Lloyd stirs the ingredients

November 15, 2013


Nov. 15--Charles Lloyd, who appears at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Nov. 19, with a group that includes the guitarist Bill Frisell, is quick to remind you that he's worked with guitarists before. Hungarian-born guitarist G bor Szab toured with Lloyd's band during the 1960s, and John Abercrombie is heard on a handful of Lloyd's ECM recordings beginning in 2000 (most notably Lift Every Voice). But eclectic, electric guitarist Frisell seems something else again, a purveyor of electronic effects and back-road psychedelica to contrast with Lloyd's usual piano-based combos. "This meeting with Frisell was fated to be," the saxophonist declared in a call from his home near Santa Barbara. "We've been circling around each other for a long time. He's so free and has so many bright moments; the stuff hits me like I can't explain. It gets the teenager in me back kickin' in the stall." The two played together at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last summer, where Lloyd was awarded the fest's annual Miles Davis Award for his work. They also played Chicago and Detroit and will appear at UCLA's Royce Hall ahead of the Santa Fe appearance. "Frisell's on another level," Lloyd said. "He's simple in his purity, and he has a deep reverence for the shoulders of the greats we all stand on. We can get the magic going. He's the perfect foil, he's got an orchestra in his head, he can get all those different colors going. With him, we can go on the wild side of the wakefulness sutras."

A conversation with Lloyd, who turned 75 this year, transcends time and space. Stories spin inside of stories. Memories swirl together like ingredients in a soup. He speaks in images, often having to do with cooking, and he gives a playful laugh when he mixes metaphors, as he frequently does. His stories are populated by many of the great names of jazz. A sentence can start out in his boyhood home of Memphis and then travel to Los Angeles and New York. He will talk about the wonder of walking Black Mesa near San Ildefonso Pueblo in Northern New Mexico and the mountains above Big Sur, California. Spiritual matters surface in unexpected places and suddenly contrast with the reality of a musical life. The one thing he won't talk about? "Turning 75? No, that's nothing to me. I'm in the present, I'm still a presence, younger than springtime and getting to the elixir. The arts do something for the soul and I've always been inspired by the music, this indigenous art form, it always did something to me, kept me alive. So I don't need to comment on longevity."

Start in Memphis. "I got to play with Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, and of course Phineas Newborn was my mentor. I used to sit in clubs with Phineas to see his brother who played guitar, and Elvis would come in to try and learn something. Phineas turned me on to Monk and Monk, beyond Memphis, would turn me on to Bird and Prez. I was living in a place rich with music and coming into paradise." He traveled to Southern California in the 1950s to study composition with Halsey Stevens at the University of Southern California. "Cali was God's country, and I was coming for the music. Stevens was the foremost authority on Bart k, who would take those folk themes and make something new of them. So I started taking the folk themes from Memphis for my music. There were so many magical guys in California, and we all came from somewhere else. Ornette [Coleman] came from Texas, Don Cherry was from Oklahoma. Only Master [Billy] Higgins was born in Los Angeles. It was Master Buddy Collette who put me on the underground railroad. Eric Dolphy was playing with Chico [Hamilton], and he went off to play with Mingus. And Buddy, who had been with Chico, called and said Chico needed someone. I was blessed that it was me."

Lloyd relocated to New York while touring with the Hamilton quintet. "I couldn't wait to get there. All that preparation in Memphis and Los Angeles, I felt ready. Almost all the guys I met there were Southerners like me. Bird was from Kansas City, close enough. Duke Ellington was there, and Monk and Miles. I had an invitation to play with Monk and to this day regret I didn't step into that. In the Village, there was Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix playing; such a soulful community. When I first got there, I was ready to live the high life. But Booker Little, my friend from Memphis, told me it wasn't about living the high life. It was about character and music."

Lloyd went on to lead one of the most popular quartets of the 1960s, one that made appearances with rock bands at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and introduced a generation to improvisational jazz. Pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette came to the attention of the jazz world in Lloyd's band, and in 1967 that group (with bassist Ron McClure) recorded a landmark session in the Soviet Union. But success took its toll on the saxophonist, and as he explained, he knew he had to look for something else. He escaped to the central California coast, mostly abandoned public performance, and -- in the saying of the times -- got his head together. "As a young man I medicated myself, but that wasn't the way. I had to find another kind of medication, so I medicated myself in Big Sur, went up there on the roof. But first I had to build the stairs, get together all the lime and adobe to build the way up. In Big Sur I was able to do that work; I was able to work in the silence. I was able to face the mirror of my own inadequacies. I got my night vision back."

Thought to be permanently retired, Lloyd surprised the jazz world by signing with the ECM label and recording Fish Out of Water in 1989, followed by Notes From Big Sur in 1992. He embraced European musicians, including the pianist Bobo Stenson, and soon gained a reputation for bringing in young, emerging musicians who, even with a critical reputation, looked to work with a true jazz legend. Ask Lloyd about how working with a guitarist is different from working with a pianist, and he immediately points out all the pianists he's worked with over the years." I played with Herbie Hancock and of course, Keith [Jarrett] and Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill. I was almost on Andrew's Point of Departure session, but I was getting double scale because I was working with Cannonball Adderley -- he had Joe Zawinul in that band -- and after the rehearsal they told me they couldn't pay double scale, so Joe Henderson slipped in. And I had Bobo and Geri Allen, and Brad Mehldau. I always loved that sensitive thing. And now Jason Moran."

Then he circles back. "There is something different between the guitar and the piano. But it's mostly about the musician. The thing about the guitar is that it opens up like that New Mexican sky, it brings up all that space you have out there. The guitar isn't filling up the sky, like the sky in New York, just glimpses of it among all this soaring. Something about the guitar, about the open sky, it lets you wander and drift high. The other thing is it makes the rhythm section perk up. [Drummer Eric Harland] has to cover so much more territory, has to get that whole [Elvin Jones] thing going and propel the music, rattling all those pots and pans. I don't like to tell people how to play. I just like to get all the ingredients together and squeeze some lime on it."


Charles Lloyd & Friends, featuring Bill Frisell

7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19

Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.

$20-$45; 505-988-1234;


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