CHARLES LLOYD has more to look back on than most musicians: early days with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Aderley, and his own first great quartet, comprising Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette.
But it’s typical of this forward-looking saxophonist that he comes to Dublin next week with a group called the New Quartet: Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and the great Eric Harland on drums.
“It’s an amazing creation,” says Lloyd, now 76. “We started our tour with a beautiful concert on October 15 in Umea, Sweden.” That show, he says, became a “requiem” for a dear friend who died just hours earlier. “I didn’t know if I could play, but the music was healing and became joyful as the night progressed in celebration of her life. We carry that spirit with us each night and the music keeps elevating.”
Lloyd is one of music’s seekers, for whom the art is an inspiration and a consolation.
“We are explorers and each night we are never sure exactly where we will go,” he says. “But I hope the audience will come with an open heart and mind and be willing to take that journey with us.”
Lloyd praises the young crop of musicians he sees making their contribution, but equally, he acknowledges that he grew up “when giants roamed the earth”.
“Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong — the creators of this art form we call jazz. That era can never be repeated.”
Born in Memphis in 1938, Lloyd was steeped in blues from an early age, before being introduced to Charlie Parker by his great mentor, the pianist Phineas Newborn. He got his first saxophone at nine and what he calls “the single most formative moment in my development” came after winning a local talent show.
“I was nine years old and Newborn was standing in the wings — he grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘You need lessons bad’. He took me around the corner and left me with a great alto player, Irvin Reasson.”
In high school, Lloyd began to listen to Bach and Bartok, before studying music formally at the University of Southern California. He became a bona fide superstar in the 1960s, just as jazz was being superseded by rock’n’roll as the background music of America.
The Lloyd quartet’s Forest Flower sold a million copies and got heavy airplay. The group was sharing bills with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and playing behind the Iron Curtain. But, at the peak of this popularity, Lloyd gave it all up, retreating to contemplative seclusion on the Californian coast, where he still lives.
Lloyd tells the story of being at Bob Dylan’s house, and him asking why he was heading west. Lloyd’s answer was that he needed to heal, to “find my centre again”. He continued to record in the shadows, but did not fully re-emerge onto the scene until the 1980s, when he met Michel Petrucciani, an 18-year-old pianist of such talent that Lloyd could not resist touring again.
Thus also began 20-year association with ECM records, a wave of great recordings with a roll-call of collaborators including Brad Mehldau and Bobo Stenson. But Lloyd remains true to the life he carved on the west coast. He’s a spiritual person, looking, he says, “to find the perfect interval — the one note that could say it all and allow me to go back into the forest”.
This may be a little tongue-in-cheek. The draw of live performance remains irresistible, he says. “You can read about the warmth of the sun and imagine how it feels — but when you actually bask in its glory, you realise that no words can properly describe that feeling which penetrates so deep. Experiencing music live is like that. You can listen to a recording or read a review, but when you are able to listen to it live — there is a palpable chemistry that is created between the audience and the musicians that is unique to that place and time. The energy of the audience becomes like another musician.”