The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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FEB 2023 Issue

Charles Lloyd: Freedom, and Wonder

Charles Lloyd. Photo: Dorothy Darr.
Charles Lloyd. Photo: Dorothy Darr.

Beauty. In 1968, she sat on her hands and watched the sunset, listening, contemplating after a day of swing-and-turn-jubilee. A “Forest Flower,” wild in her sense of self and place having listened to the Charles Lloyd quartet play; Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, Jack DeJohnette. In 1996, she stood, thinking of her land, her hands reaching to the moon in a city of her choice, listening to Canto, played by Charles Lloyd, Bobo Stenson, Anders Jorman, and Billy Hart, dancing the rivers within herself.

In 2022, a trio of trios: three albums by three different trios, together as one Blue Note release; Sacred Thread—Lloyd, Julian Lage, Zakir Hussain; Chapel—Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan; Ocean—Lloyd, Anthony Wilson, Gerald Clayton. The covers of each album are each a print by Lloyd’s wife Dorothy. This is the realm of self-definition. These musicians have listened to desolation (“Desolation Sound”), to lament (“Nachekita’s Lament”), to the nature of eloquence and wisdom (“Saraswati”), to a blues that renders the impossibility of domesticating or defeating the human being into music (“Jaramillo Blues”).

In Dorothy’s studio (“Dorotea’s Studio”), where we sat as we spoke, Lloyd’s stories were that of a lively spirit, a ceramist of conversation, a master at form, in storytelling as much as in music.

One such story is of a young man in love with Lady Day: “When I was a little boy, I wanted to marry Lady Day. Give her a long winding driveway. I told people I needed to get to New York to marry Billie Holiday. They said, "why don’t you split then." I told them I can’t reach the clutch pedals. I felt that she was singing just to me.” With this he explained the ideal in his own sax and flute playing: tenderness. Like in Prez (Lester Young) and Lady Day’s music, the resonance of his lyrical playing, fragment after fragment.

Another story is of Booker Little, an essential “great cat” to Lloyd:

Booker Little was enlightened. I was staying with him. He’s a huge influence on my heart. I went to school with him. He graduated a year before me.

He loved Fats Navarro, and Clifford Brown. Clifford had just been killed in a car accident. Booker came home crying. He said, ‘why couldn’t that have been me?’ He was only eighteen. I didn’t know a guy with that much spirit. Clifford had been playing with Max Roach, and Booker took his place. Sure enough, Booker dies at twenty-three.

Trios: Chapel was the first. In San Antonio, Texas, “I had to play a big concert, and they said we want to show you something, a big chapel. An old stone chapel,” Lloyd says. “I wanted to play here, but not with drums. This chapel is too fragile, there would be too much echo.” Bill Frisell introduced Lloyd to Thomas Morgan, who had been listening to Lloyd’s second album, Of Course, Of Course, with Frisell.

“Kuan Yin,” Lloyd as lyrical, repetitive, tenor saxophone along with Gerald Clayton playing a labyrinthian piano, would have also worked as a title for this trio of trios. Kuan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion with a thousand arms and hands, a warrior committed to uprooting suffering. who listens to the cries of this world. This compassion, whether danced in a white or red dress, or none, means to awaken our hearts. Without it, we’ve lost the willingness to live in a delightful world.

From their listening, the musicians have made music that moves human life toward its desires for joyful self-realization. That if ever a mother were to ask a son or daughter, “Where have you been, my darling young one,” both the question and answer would delight, could only come from singing our hearts truths, and from freedom and wonder.

A trio of jazz trios? Jazz is that great story Bessie Jones would tell of a young woman who fell in love with the devil, who tricked her while wearing a three-piece suit. He carried her off to his devilish abode guarded by a rooster, in his carriage, taking his mask off in the process, telling her exactly how she could escape—not without laughter. Escape she does, putting something between herself and the devil—exodus. Is jazz the devil, the rooster, or the lady? It’s the story itself. The term ties a musician to the supremacy of popular communication.

Doesn’t jazz torch Babylon with tradition, with melody and accent? So be it. Charles Lloyd does not play jazz. He serves the creator. The techniques, better yet techne, of this service are a multitude, such as choosing a Sangam, which is a confluence of rivers or of learned individuals, keeping the beginner’s mind, letting the flood in by getting out of the way of other musicians.

“Mecca. Prez, the poet,” Lloyd says. “Bird. Bird would fly over and bless Gotham.” Lloyd’s gone from Mecca to Mecca, city to city, to eventually find the music he loved before him and within him. The first was Memphis, a city of folks whose lives were not “dwarfed, and wed to blight,” their “very days … shades of night,” whose souls are a “bud—that never bloomed,” as in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Harlem Renaissance poem “Foredoom.” There, Lloyd would ride his bike and sit on pianist Phineas Newborn’s lawn, where he’d “shiver” from Newborn’s music.

“In this place, and that place” as he sings in Moon Man, Lloyd moved from Memphis to Los Angeles, “where he would argue all day with Ornette [Coleman],” and study Bartók’s use of “folk songs and Fibonacci numbers.” There he found himself on Central Avenue with Coleman, all the while finding himself engaged in spiritual practice. Los Angeles, however, he'd soon leave behind for New York, for “Trane and Sonny.” New York is where he picked up the tenor sax, which he finds like breathing underwater. Then he headed back to Los Angeles, to Malibu, Big Sur, and finally to Santa Barbara, to the outdoors, whether underwater or on a hike, when he can hear himself thinking about intervals.

“Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” sings the choir in Euripides’s play Medea. The city is an obsession in the arts of Western life that Lloyd does not share, though he recognizes what cities have done for his music. “I realized I had to go away into nature and build my own stairs,” he says, without nostalgia.

“Have you heard of Lao Tzu? It was a time of the plague,” says Lloyd. “Everybody was running, trying to get away from the plague. Lao Tzu would get up in the morning with his little stick, and go out for a walk. This guy said, 'Hey old man, is that all you got away with this stick?' Lao Tzu answers, ‘Yeah precisely.’ He’s going for his morning walk. He wasn’t dealing with the relative.”

Lloyd’s is that other enlightenment, one that grounds itself in the Socratic idea that “I know that I know nothing,” that the capacity of the human brain is limited, as in Eastern, Native, or African thought, etc., that only the creator allows one to arrive at such heights. “You’ve heard ‘Master’ [Billy] Higgins? When Billy Higgins was a little boy, he was playing stick ball with Don Cherry, and they just heard a sound. They stopped playing and ran to the sound. It was Ornette in a music store trying out a reed! It’s all the creator. You need to be shown the way.”

Ballads are integral to Lloyd’s spirituality, to this enlightenment. Ballads cultivate the heart and the nervous system. Ballads come easily to Lloyd, and without hearing them, one will not be able to imagine the tenderness of such an opinionated spirit.

His spirit is “a wild and holy tradition,” he says. This tradition that Lloyd belongs to, a personal one, begins with Hagar (“Hagar’s Song”), his great grandmother through his Choctaw roots, his grandfather’s farm in Mississippi, and its orchards.

I come from a people who freed themselves. The lord loves those of us who are wild men too because we seek deep goods.

This tradition has made first and foremost a singer, believe it or not, and then a sax and flute player. The creator for some reason keeps me here. I’m thankful. I have to sing a song of truth and love that transcends the relative.

For those who appreciate this music, it may be best to ask it to “reveal thyself in me,” as Lloyd has made a life of praying.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues