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Dream Weavers: Charles Lloyd’s Piano Legacy

Keith Jarrett, Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau all apprenticed in his bands

Charles Lloyd and Michel Petrucciani

For almost half a century, Charles Lloyd has had an extraordinary run of luck with piano players. Of course, you make your own luck. The passion and authenticity of Lloyd’s music, and his willingness to trust his pianists, which sets them free, has enabled him to attract the best.

It began with Keith Jarrett in 1965. On Dream Weaver and Love-In, the 21-year-old former Jazz Messenger spilled new ideas torrentially, far from wherever Lloyd had begun. Forest Flower sold a million copies and became an icon of the 1960s. When you listen to the album now, you realize how much of its euphoria, how much of its hypnotic lyrical majesty, came from Jarrett.

Lloyd walked away and went to Big Sur to meditate. Ten years later, a teenager, Michel Petrucciani, lured him back to music. On their two live albums, Montreux ’82 (never released on CD) and A Night in Copenhagen (recorded in 1983 and currently out of print), it is easy to hear what compelled Lloyd to take up his saxophone again.

Petrucciani’s music is about ecstasy. Terribly crippled from osteogenesis imperfecta (“glass bone” disease), Petrucciani had to be carried to the piano bench-but once at the keyboard, music became his miraculous power, his liberation. Charles Lloyd’s music is a journey toward transcendence; Petrucciani was already there.

Lloyd signed with ECM in 1989 and began creating one of the permanent bodies of work in turn-of-the-century jazz. For the first five ECM albums, the pianist was Bobo Stenson. Like Jarrett and Petrucciani, he was a relative unknown until he played with the saxophonist. He had his own stark, cryptic lyricism and his own open-ended harmonic language; compared to Lloyd, he was drier, cooler and more austere. Yet they sounded like two separate voices operating in a common spiritual domain. Stenson could open a song and create the deep, rapt atmosphere of Charles Lloyd’s world even before Lloyd arrived.

The case of Brad Mehldau is different. He was already a star when he played with Lloyd. They never toured and made only two albums together, but what astonishing albums they are. On The Water Is Wide (2000) and Hyperion With Higgins (2001), Mehldau is harder and more lush than Stenson, and even more poetic. He transforms and enlarges and intensifies Lloyd’s chosen material every time he touches it. On “Georgia on My Mind,” when Mehldau is finished, it is as though the world has stopped. You think nothing more can be said, until Lloyd comes in and calls only the melody, clear and soft, like breathing.

It is sometimes forgotten that Geri Allen had a productive tenure with Lloyd on two transitional albums. Lift Every Voice (2002) and Jumping the Creek (2005) would sound very different without her tender freeform playing and enigmatic harmonies.

When Lloyd introduced his New Quartet in 2008 with Rabo de Nube, it was surprising that Jason Moran was the piano player, because he had his own high-profile career as a leader. On “Prometheus,” the opening track, after one of Lloyd’s hovering, whispering preludes, Moran announces himself with one chord, a shocking, dissonant crash. Lloyd’s relationship with Moran is founded on such contrast. Moran is louder, more jagged and more abstract than his predecessors. His energy carries Lloyd further aloft, and Lloyd turns Moran inward. On their second album, Mirror, and their new one, Athens Concert, Moran often plays with sparseness and a fervent hush, drawing on creative resources it took Charles Lloyd to reveal.

Originally Published