If spirituality is predicated on the notion that there’s something bigger out there than ourselves, then it makes sense Charles Lloyd would not distinguish between his spiritual beliefs and his art. “My music and my spiritual practice are one and the same,” he said via email this spring. A lyrical tenor saxophonist and flutist whose evocative approach to melody seems not to waver in even the most avant-garde material, Lloyd’s early invocation of musical ideas from beyond the borders of jazz—and the borders of the U.S.—made him a pioneer in jazz by the early ’60s, when he was living in Greenwich Village and hanging out with the likes of Bob Dylan.
After stints with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley, his celebrated quartet with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Cecil McBee recorded Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey (1966), a million-plus–selling album long heralded for bridging gaps between both audiences and musicians in jazz and rock. Soon Lloyd was recording with the Beach Boys and playing with bands like the Doors while continuing to make his own albums. At some point the pace and lifestyle became too much; he quietly set up a new life in Big Sur in 1970, remaining there for more than a decade.
When he returned, Lloyd launched a relationship with ECM, recording a series of gorgeous and often progressive albums. Today, the 80-year-old NEA Jazz Master is training his expansive musical thinking on multiple ensembles including the Marvels, which features guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz alongside his New Quartet drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers. On January 20, 2017, the group issued a collective comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration by teaming up with Lucinda Williams to release a version of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” (Their second album, Vanished Gardens, is out June 29 on Blue Note Records.)
In an email exchange this spring, Lloyd shared insights about the new recording, working with Williams and how his past continues to inspire his present.
What do you connect with in Lucinda’s music—and does your shared Memphis–Louisiana regional connection play out within that at all?
I’ve worked with a lot of poets, especially during my Big Sur days; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Schyleen Qualls, Michael McClure, Bob Kaufman, James Dalessandro … putting words and music together. Lu is a poet. An authentic, American voice. A friend had turned me on to her music when Wheels On a Gravel Road came out. A couple of years ago she came to one of my Marvels concerts—it was our first meeting and I sensed a deep Southern crossroads connection. When she smiled at me after the concert I knew she understood. Not long after our first meeting she invited me to guest at her UCLA concert and then I invited her to guest at one of my concerts about a year later… The rest continues to unfold.
When you play “Masters of War,” do you feel the anger Dylan was channeling when he wrote the song or does the music become an outlet for something else?
Dylan covered all of our feelings with his lyrics and they are still relevant today. ‘Let me ask you one question/ Is your money that good/ Will it buy you forgiveness/ Do you think that it could?/ I think you will find/ When your death takes its toll/ All the money you made/ Will never buy back your soul.’ This verse spoke volumes to me. Am I angry about the condition? You bet, but I can’t let that consume me. I have to focus on positive energy and making music is a positive force for good. Music has always been my inspiration and consolation. That is what I try to bring.
What new directions were you able to explore on Vanished Gardens?
We know each other better now and therefore we can travel more freely down certain paths. Having Lucinda on five of the tracks adds a new dimension to the overall experience … for my listeners and for hers. I think on the new recording, we were able to let go and plunge deeply into the sound.
You’ve said there have been times when you’ve come “close” to playing the sound you hear in your mind’s ear. What does that feel like?
It is flight and out-of-the-body experience. There is no space or time. It’s the zone. There is no me, no you. Just oneness with the sound. It’s newness pregnant with elixirs. There is no predictable way to get there, but we surrender to the deity and try every night.
Would you be as prolific a musician at 80 had you not exiled yourself in Big Sur when you were younger? How did staying off the stage during those years affect your music?
Good question. I don’t think I would still be here if I had not taken exile in Big Sur. The many years of seclusion and retreat gave me the ability to return to activity while keeping the silence within.
Growing up in Memphis, your mother sometimes hosted touring musicians including Lionel Hampton. What questions did you ask Hamp? Did any New Orleans musicians ever come through?
I was impatient. As soon as they came down to breakfast, I pounced. I remember that I wanted a Selmer saxophone and my mother wanted to get me something else. I asked Hamp about it. Hamp told her that ‘if a professional needs a Selmer, an amateur needs one all the more.’ I was over the moon when he told her that. At the time, Selmer was making marvelous instruments. Later in my maturation, Prez [Lester Young] and the Conn saxophone mystically came to me, which I still play today. Prez was from New Orleans, and when I was a young man playing at the Antibes Festival in the South of France—I was there at the same time as Duke Ellington—Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney took me under their wings. They took me to the gravesite of the great Sidney Bechet and initiated me. That experience stays with me.
You’ve made music during other times of division and great sociopolitical change. Can you share an experience when you saw music have a tangible, positive or connecting power on an audience?
Music is a unifying force. It is about building bridges, it goes direct to the heart and mind of the listener. It was an important component of the marches in the ’60s. Mostly performances seem to be intangible as the music goes out into the ethers and disappears. There are many experiences to share of people who told me their lives changed from the music, or they were healed, or they were uplifted—once when I was performing in San Francisco, a couple came up to me to thank me for my music. They had been political prisoners for over a year somewhere in South America and while incarcerated, they were given a copy of Forest Flower. They told me that without the music they would have given up all hope. Last week I had a concert on my 80th birthday. I received a note in the mail a few days ago with this message: ‘There was not a person there who wasn’t transformed, whose heart was not opened, whose DNA was not permanently rearranged. Thank you for the gift of your music.’
What’s exciting about playing music at 80 that’s changed since you were younger?
The longevity and the experience have given me more tools, it goes deeper. Truth and Love. Transformation. Distillation of sound. Mother’s grace blesses me. Water does not wet it. Wind does not blow it and fire does not burn it.
CHARLES LLOYD & THE MARVELS WITH LUCINDA WILLIAMS: SATURDAY, APRIL 28—WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 4:15 P.M.