Charles Lloyd: We Must Sing the Song

An icon continues his lifelong pursuit of melody

Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri
Charles Lloyd with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland

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Charles Lloyd is sitting on the edge of his chair, his lanky physique a forward-leaning question mark. We are in a modernly apportioned Manhattan hotel room, all hard-edged black-and-white furniture with chrome details, contrasting the loose-fitted, California-style attire he’s wearing: muted greens, yellows and browns. The late winter sun streams in brightly, lighting up a spectacular westward view of the Hudson River. Later, Lloyd will remark how it reminds him of the Pacific vista that his hilltop home in Southern California provides, and how he has always been drawn to the calming effect of water.

At the moment, we are discussing music. The 73-year-old saxophonist, flutist, composer and bandleader smiles when his recent recordings are described as maintaining a tranquil intensity. “So you can hear that quietude, huh? Can others hear it or do you have to tell them?,” he teases. Lloyd is lighthearted and open, as engaged discussing recent projects as he is recalling his Memphis childhood, equally amenable to commenting on the restrained vigor in his sound and his continuing sense of mission.

“You don’t have to shoot an ant with a cannon just because you can,” he continues, “just because you know all that kind of stuff. It has something to do with my stage in the journey. There’s a lot of passion in here still and the fires are burning. I never changed, you know; I never veered. Those who went before, they left that message to carry forward. We must sing the song.”

The notion of singing, in Lloyd’s world, is more than a turn of phrase; it points to a deeply lyrical strand in his musical DNA that explains his popularity with aficionados and more mainstream listeners. His is a rare, enduring balance of sophistication and accessibility. The same melodic flow and distinctively warm yet edgy tone that brought him commercial success with “Forest Flower” in the mid-1960s have been refined through a run of critically hailed albums on ECM, recordings that have found a common thread between Eastern-flavored originals and well-worn standards, old-time spirituals and such unlikely pop-world melodies as “You Are So Beautiful” and “Caroline, No.” (Both of those tunes link to Lloyd’s abiding friendship with the Beach Boys, a relationship that began during his fabled break from performing in the 1970s.) “See, I’m lyrical. I am a singer,” Lloyd says with a heavy sigh. “As a kid, I wanted to marry Lady Day and I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t have a voice for that. So I had to sing on this thing made out of brass. But now I have Maria-I found my voice!”

Lloyd is visibly excited, and for good reason. Maria Farantouri is the Greek vocalist of international renown, distinguished by both her deep, colorful contralto and her outspoken political stance (she was elected to the Greek Parliament in the late ’80s and served for five years). They first met in 2002 at the home of a mutual friend when Farantouri was performing in the Los Angeles area. Hearing her interpretive ability on “some ancient Byzantine melodies, I became drunk on the elixirs,” says Lloyd. A friendship and mutual admiration developed, and they performed sporadically and collaborated on a few numbers over the years. Not until 2010, however, were they able to fully realize a joint recording project.

Athens Concert, a double-disc package recorded live at the outdoor Herodion amphitheater at the base of the Acropolis, is a stunning set of 18 starkly rendered songs. Simple, melodic lines morph into full, sweeping gestures of emotion with an economic balance of light, shadow and space. Odd time signatures subtly blend with, rather than dominate, the overall swing-flavored pulse. Some of the tunes are traditional, some are Lloyd’s melodies and a number are by famed composer Mikis Theodorakis, to whom Farantouri has been a career-long muse. Moody and minor-keyed for the most part, the performances vary in texture and mode: instrumental and vocal, with English, Greek and Byzantine lyrics. Some include additional Greek personnel: Takis Farazis on piano or Socratis Sinopoulos on the lyre, a stringed instrument popularized in the classical Mediterranean. Lloyd himself stretches out on tenor saxophone, flute and tarogato, the nasally sonorous cousin of the clarinet.

In an e-mail, Farantouri confessed that though “I have always listened to and enjoyed jazz music and songs, it’s the first time I work with a jazz group. Two different sources of music met, fused and created a new proposition. … The melodies, which are part of the Greek suite, are age-old and have a primal sound. Charles’ sensitivity and inquisitive spirit, as well as that of the excellent musicians, transformed the material into a new contemporary sound.

“I have to point out that there are, of course, differences between Greek music and jazz, but there are also affinities, the most important of which is the element of improvisation.”

Athens Concert achieves, track by track, a fully integrated maturity that avoids the pitfall of a half-hearted cross-cultural parlay. Save for a few moments that lean toward the folkloric, like the lament “Epirotiko Meroloi,” there’s a uniform jazz feel that can be attributed to what is arguably Lloyd’s most accomplished (and steady) group of recent memory: pianist Jason Moran, 36; bassist Reuben Rogers, 36; and drummer Eric Harland, 34.

Like a few well-known veterans who, in leading combos of youthful talent, are creating some of the most vibrant music of their careers-Wayne Shorter and Roy Haynes come quickly to mind-Lloyd has benefited from a lineup of flexibility and new ideas.Their relative ages, in his mind, are but an arbitrary attribute. “I’m so blessed that I have peers with me,” he says. “It’s refreshing to have guys of this quality and character. People say, ‘You have this young band.’ I don’t think like that because we all get on the wavelength. They follow me and we soar. That they continue to come out with me validates it, because I don’t go out all the time.”

It says a lot that in recent years Lloyd has managed to attract top-tier talent to perform on his recordings and join him on tour-in-demand musicians, some of whom are leaders willing to take time off from their own bands. Lloyd’s albums in just the past 10 years have ranged from duets with lifelong colleague Billy Higgins (whom he befriended in 1958 after moving to Los Angeles while still a teenager), to his Sangam trio with Harland and tabla maestro/vocalist Zakir Hussain, to a series of quartets and quintets that featured the likes of pianists Bobo Stenson, Brad Mehldau and Geri Allen; guitarist John Abercrombie; bassists Dave Holland, Larry Grenadier and Robert Hurst; and drummer Billy Hart.

Since 2007, when Moran replaced Allen mid-tour in Europe and then played on Lloyd’s studio album Rabo de Nube, the saxophonist has been able to consistently call on Moran, Rogers and Harland. Mirror followed in 2010, and now Athens Concert, a project that speaks to a level of creative flexibility in the group that reaches beyond simple leader plus support, a collective freedom that rarely happens, and hardly ever by design.

There is general agreement as to when the quartet’s sound first came together. It was a gig in 2008 when chances began to be taken with different song structures and a door was opened to spontaneous ideas. Oddly enough-or one might say, poetically-it happened on a tune with an all-too familiar sound and structure. “It was the first time we did ‘Forest Flower,'” recalls Harland. “Man, it was very open, very free. Sometimes you fall into being a prisoner to a chart, but suddenly it existed without a form, like we were hinting at the form. The crowd went crazy because they still could understand what it was we were playing but we played it so unconventionally, not in any relation to any recordings of it.”

“Yeah, I remember that night,” says Moran, laughing. “It was in San Diego, in La Jolla. We had never done ‘Forest Flower’ before that, even when people would yell out for it. Something happened to Charles that night that made him say, ‘You know what? I can play this song again.’ That was also a changing mode for the band, because it was like he was accepting his history but he was really trying to form something new.”

Moran had come to enjoy the liberating effect of playing in the quartet, as a respite from leading Bandwagon, his popular group with bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. (“I’m not a piano player who wants to just stay with a trio-as amazing as that is [to say],” he admits.) He noticed Lloyd’s devotion to lyricism-“When he’s in the car or wherever, he’ll be talking about a song then start singing the lyrics. And when he plays the head of a tune, he always takes such care of the melody”-and appreciated how open Lloyd was to sharing the stories and lessons of his past. “I think he’s extremely aware of it, ’cause I think he also wants to impart a certain amount of that information onto us, his young bandmates,” Moran explains. “History for him is really tangible, even though it was a long time ago.”

Lloyd’s regard for the past has always been more messianic than simply nostalgic, and it can’t help but influence those around him. He speaks of his good fortune of arriving in New York City in 1960. “I missed Prez and I missed Bird, but I heard Ornette and Newk,” he says. “I came to town when many of them were still alive, giants still roaming the Earth. I was there when they held church every night.

“The strongest church was Trane’s. I don’t care what people thought they were coming to hear or what they thought that was, he would have church every night. I heard him at the Village Gate, at the Half Note. I heard him on that first album he did with Miles on Prestige, with the green cover, the one where they play ‘Stable Mates’ [he hums the melody]. See, that was spiritual. I mean, the changes were being taken care of, but the music transcended what that was.”

Coltrane’s influence on Lloyd’s saxophone sound is easily discernible to this day, yet it only begins to describe a singular voice of many facets. “That’s always the thing with jazz-we all do borrow from each other,” says Harland. “People get caught up on the idea that they listen to someone once and they grasp their entire sound. Charles has this incredible vocabulary: He has these whale tones, tiny squeals, and these piercing kind of sounds. Oh, man! Just the control he has over his instrument-the dynamic range-is incredible. The more I play with him, the more I hear the difference.”

Harland was the first of the quartet to come Lloyd’s way in 2002, mere months after the death of Billy Higgins, an occurrence Lloyd does not see as happenchance: “Higgins gone, Eric comes,” says Lloyd. “Higgins sent Eric.” Two years later, the drummer helped recruit Reuben Rogers, whose anchoring ability and rhythmic elasticity-swayed by his Caribbean roots-Lloyd prizes highly. “Reuben is wonderful,” he praises. “He’s from the islands, very loose [yet] organized. He fuels us and keeps us together.”

Harland’s long friendship with Moran-they grew up in the same Houston neighborhood-was as responsible for the pianist joining the group as was Moran’s own interest in meeting Lloyd. “I met Charles one night in New York when he was leading the Sangam trio,” Moran remembers. “I went backstage, saw Eric and then talked to Charles. I remember saying that I felt his music in my spine. Some music does other things, but what he was playing and the way the ensemble was working was getting far deeper than just some normal jazz shit.”

Moran’s comment stuck with Lloyd. As the saxophonist recalls, “In 2007 when Geri had to leave the tour, Eric reminded me, ‘Jason wants to play with you,’ and I said, ‘Welcome.’ The first time we played together was in Portugal. Audition? His audition was backstage, when he said, ‘Your music touched me to my backbone.'”

The quartet’s breakthrough moment, when Lloyd suddenly decided to play “Forest Flower,” took place almost a year and a half later. “It really was the evolution of the group’s comfort level and the risk that we were willing to take and move forward,” says Harland. “I mean, in the beginning we took risks, but it still fell in a certain pocket of safety. Now it’s something new. Like Jason, he likes to be a little bit on the outside of what’s going on so he can create some tension or find space. Basically he loves being unpredictable.”

One cannot help but think back to similar situations in the jazz timeline-Ornette Coleman’s group of the late ’50s or Lloyd’s mid-’60s quartet that featured Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. Or, especially, Miles Davis’ groundbreaking quintet of the same period. As drummer Tony Williams once said of the trumpeter, “He wants to hear stuff he’s not in control of. He wants to hear something that he wouldn’t think of.”

Moran’s take on playing under Lloyd’s aegis sounds much the same. “When we played ‘Forest Flower’ that night, I realized Charles’ reason for hiring us. I think when he gets all that shifting under him, the music just slipping around beside him, he’s like, ‘Yeah! I like this.’ It keeps him flexible.”

Often in jazz, fortune smiles on those who hang in there. Lloyd’s famous ’60s lineup lasted for two years; his current quartet is closing in on its fifth. Since the early ’90s, the saxophonist has been ably managed by his wife, the artist and photographer Dorothy Darr. Lloyd’s 22-year run with Manfred Eicher’s ECM records represents the longest business relationship of his career; including Athens Concert, he has released 15 albums on the Munich-based label.

Lloyd notes how, over time, more of his projects have become self-produced. “We have a one-page contract that says we’ll be with you as long as you want or we want. We don’t have any plantation arrangements-it’s honest and honorable. The thing about Manfred is that he’s a musician and he has this ability to cut through all of the flesh of it and just go to the heart of the matter. When I made my first record with him, Fish Out of Water, I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. He likes to be hands-on, but now I think that he recognizes we have our own way of working.”

Athens Concert, produced by Eicher, fits well into Lloyd’s recorded legacy: another concert album-like Live in the Soviet Union and Forest Flower: Live at Monterey in the ’60s; Montreux and A Night in Copenhagen in the ’80s-that captures timeless music performed in a special time and place. Yet it stands out as well, a remarkable set of music that comes across as such an organic endeavor when in fact the necessary preparation was “pretty rigorous,” according to Moran.

“We actually rehearsed a lot for this,” the pianist continues, “which we don’t do normally for the quartet. We worked hard at getting the right songs together for her, making sure we knew the arrangements of these new pieces and approaching it sensitively because we were in a foreign territory, dealing with that history and this woman, Maria Farantouri from Athens, a quite serious singer. She’s like the Odetta of Greece.”

Farantouri herself adds, “Already during the rehearsals, I felt that the idea we were going over in our minds would come out as a creative act both for us and the audience. And this is what really happened. I stood onstage performing [and] I was so engrossed by the music. When I listen to the CD, I am convinced that Manfred struck an amazing balance between the voice and the instruments without in the least detracting from the vividness and the magic of a live concert.”

Back in his hotel room, Lloyd is eager to share more of his Athens experience. He plays a few unmixed recordings from the concert, and pulls out a photo album filled with images of ancient ruins, smiling faces and Greek lunches spread out on tables under blue skies. Time cuts our visit short, as Lloyd has to prepare for a concert with his quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The day may still be young but Lloyd, as he freely concedes, is not the spring chicken he once was. “This old guy keeps going along the pathway,” he says. “I have a beginner’s mind but I’m getting more mileage all the time on the chassis.” Is there anything he wants to do that he has yet to accomplish?

“I’m seeking something that I haven’t gotten to yet and I’m still on the journey. So whatever I’m doing it’s the same thing. I’m painting this painting that’s about transformation and transcendence and it’s a prayer to the creator, or whatever name you call God. I haven’t made the sound yet that has made her say, ‘OK, you see my face enough now and come on home.'”