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Tone Poem, Charles Lloyd & The Marvels

NEA Jazz Master, Charles Lloyd, now in his eighth decade, has never sounded better. The depth of his sound reflects a lifetime of experience. A Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductee, and recipient of the prestigious Chevalier des Arts et Lettre from the French Minister of culture, Lloyd has a legendary history in the music world, and could certainly be in a position to slow down and rest on his laurels. But he keeps shifting to a higher, well calibrated gear.

His concerts and recordings are events of pristine beauty and elegance, full of intensely felt emotion and passion that touches deep inside the heart. This is not entertainment, but the powerful uncorrupted expression of beauty through music. When music vibrates, the soul vibrates and touches the spirit within. “Lloyd is one of the greats, rather like Joan Miro in modern art, he has no peer save himself. Music of total transport and delight.”Jazzwise

Charles Lloyd was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 15, 1938. Like New Orleans, 400 miles to the south on the Mississippi, Memphis has a rich river culture and musical heritage saturated in blues, gospel and jazz. Lloyd’s ancestry of African, Choctaw, Mongolian, and Irish reflects a similar rich culture. He was given his first saxophone at the age of 9, and was riveted to 1940’s radio broadcasts by Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. His early teachers included pianist Phineas Newborn and saxophonist Irvin Reason. His closest childhood friend was the great trumpeter Booker Little. As a teenager Lloyd played jazz with saxophonist George Coleman and was a sideman for blues greats Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King.

Classical music also exerted a strong pull on the young Lloyd. In 1956 he left Memphis for Los Angeles to earn a degree in music at USC where he studied with Halsey Stevens, a foremost Bartók authority. While his days were spent in academia, Lloyd spent nights getting educated on the job in L.A.’s jazz clubs, playing with Ornette Coleman, Billy Higgins, Scott La Faro, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and other leading west coast jazz artists. He also was a member of the Gerald Wilson big band.

In 1960 Lloyd was invited to become music director of Chico Hamilton’s group when Dolphy left to join Charles Mingus’s band. The Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo and bassist Albert “Sparky” Stinson soon joined Lloyd in the band. Hamilton’s most memorable albums for Impulse Records, Passin’ Thru and Man from Two Worlds, featured music arranged and written almost entirely by Lloyd, and during this period of prolific composing he was also finding his unique voice as a saxophonist. A memorable collaboration took place between Lloyd and the Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji, with whom the saxophonist played when he wasn’t on the road with Hamilton.

Lloyd joined the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in 1964, and performed alongside Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. He remained with Cannonball for two years, and to this day continues to acknowledge the important role Cannon played in his own development as a leader. In 1964 Lloyd signed with CBS Records and began to record as a leader. His Columbia recordings, Discovery, (1964) and Of Course, Of Course, (1965) featured sidemen including Roy Haynes and Tony Williams on drums, Richard Davis and Ron Carter on bass, Gabor Szabo on guitar and Don Friedman on piano, and led to his being voted Downbeat Magazine’s “New Star.” Of Course, Of Course was reissued on Mosaic Records in 2006.

Lloyd left Cannonball Adderley in 1965 to form his own quartet, a brilliant ensemble that introduced the jazz world to the talents of pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee. Their first release together was a studio recording, Dream Weaver, followed by Forest Flower: Live at Monterey, (1966). Forest Flower made history as one of the first jazz recordings to sell a million copies, and the album’s firsts continued as it became a stunning crossover success that appealed to popular, mass market, audiences and gained heavy airplay on FM radio. The Quartet was the first jazz group to appear at the famed Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and other rock palaces and shared billing with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cream, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

In 1967 Charles Lloyd was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” by Down Beat, and the Quartet was invited to tour the world. The Charles Lloyd Quartet found a warm reception in Europe at the new jazz festivals in Montreux, Antibes, and Molde. Its performances in the Far East, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations of Europe often marked the first time these audiences had heard an American jazz group live.

Credited by many musicians with anticipating the World Music movement by incorporating cadences of many cultures in his compositions as early as the late 1950s, Charles Lloyd describes his music as having always “danced on many shores.” From the moment he first came to prominence as the young music director of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1960, Lloyd began to take audiences on journeys that traversed enormous distances. Over nearly five decades, his compositions have punctuated the post-bop period, embraced the traditional music of a host of world cultures and enlivened the psychedelic 1960s with avant-garde improvisation.

Lloyd was one of the first jazz artists to sell a million copies of a recording: Forest Flower’, and then he surprised the music world by walking away from performing just at the point that he was dubbed a jazz superstar. Actually he was just following a trajectory that was taking him closer to the essence of the music he was hearing.

At the peak of the Cold War in 1967, Lloyd made headlines when his Quartet became the first jazz group from the U.S. to play in the USSR by invitation of the Soviet people rather than through government sponsorship. Its first stop was Tallinn and subsequent concerts took place in Leningrad and Moscow. He was the first jazz musician to perform at the classical music festival in Bergen, Norway.

The Charles Lloyd Quartet was the first jazz group to perform at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The acoustic group fused virtuoso improvising with a constantly changing combination of musical tropes, incorporating the challenge of avant-garde or “free jazz” with elements of non-Western music, impressionistic harmonies and occasional rock rhythms in open-ended musical flights that echoed the free spirit of the psychedelic 1960s. Electric jazz/rock germinated in a series of original performances that, ironically, were acoustic. He was invited to guest on recordings with the Doors, the Birds, The Grateful Dead, Ashish and Pranesh Khan, and the Beach Boys. Miles Davis and other jazz figures were highly influenced by Lloyd’s explorations and soon plugged in to play for the young fans that Lloyd had reached through his acoustic outings.

At the height of his career in 1970, Lloyd disbanded the quartet and dropped from sight, withdrawing to pursue an inner journey in Big Sur, the wild haven that had previously attracted other artists and seekers including Robinson Jeffers, Langston Hughes, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Jean Varda and Jamie DeAngulo.

Despite recording several albums during the 1970s and occasionally appearing as a sideman with various rock groups, he practically disappeared from the jazz scene. During the 1970s Lloyd played extensively with The Beach Boys both on their studio recordings and as a member of their touring band. In the late 1970s Lloyd was a member of Celebration, a band composed of members of the Beach Boys’ touring band as well as Mike Love and Al Jardine. Celebration released two albums.

It wasn’t until 1981 that Lloyd moved to break a decade of silence in the jazz world when a remarkable 18-year-old French pianist, Michel Petrucciani, arrived in Big Sur. Lloyd was compelled to help introduce this gifted artist to the world. This led to U.S., European and Japanese tours in 1982 and 1983 with Petrucciani on piano, Palle Danielsson on bass and drummer Son Ship Theus. British jazz critic Brian Case called Lloyd’s return “one of the events of the 1980s.” The group produced a special edition cassette, Night Blooming Jasmine, and two live records, Montreux ’82’and A Night in Copenhagen, which also features Bobby McFerrin (reissued by Blue Note Records). Satisfied that Petrucciani was beginning to receive the recognition he deserved, Lloyd again retreated to Big Sur.

In 1986, after being hospitalized with a nearly fatal medical condition, Lloyd rededicated himself to music. When he regained his strength in 1988 he formed a new quartet with the renowned Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. When Lloyd returned to the Montreux Festival in 1988, Swiss critic Yvan Ischer wrote: “To see and hear Charles Lloyd in concert is always an event, not only because this saxophonist has been at quite a few crossroads, but also because he seems to hold an impalpable truth which makes him a thoroughly original musician…This is what we call grace.”

Lloyd made his first recording for ECM Records, “Fish Out of Water” in 1989. The project marked the beginning of a new wave of Lloyd compositions and recordings. ECM’s producer, Manfred Eicher, compared the recording to a Giacometti painting, saying, “I really believe this is the refined essence of what music should be. All the meat is gone, only the bones remain.” More than twenty years later, he is still with the label, and still in search of the “sound” and the truth. From 1989, Lloyd toured actively and recorded for the ECM label. Noteworthy albums include “Canto,” “Voice In the Night,” “The Water Is Wide,” featuring Brad Mehldau, John Abercrombie, Larry Grenadier and Billy Higgins, “Lift Every Voice,” (featuring Geri Allen), and the live “Rabo de Nube” with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland. This group became known at the New Quartet rivaling his original quartet with Keith Jarrett.

Charles Lloyd brought great consistency and creativity to his period with ECM, much of his music containing a strong spiritual and world music element, as can be heard on the duo recording “Which Way Is East” with his longtime friend and musical soul mate, Billy Higgins. “Rabo de Nube”, captured the New Quartet “live” at its inception, and was voted #1 recording for the 2008 Jazz Times Reader’s and Critic’s Poll. “Mirror,” his second recording with the New Quartet, (2010) has already been called a “Charles Lloyd classic.”

Lloyd established another “first” in his interesting history of jazz “firsts”, by collaborating with the classical Greek singer, Maria Farantouri for a concert at the Herodion Theater at the foot of the Acropolis. Ta Nea, the leading newspaper of Athens stated “Music has no borders…. The audience was filled with a Dionysian ecstasy. While the music had reminiscences of a Hypiros fair, at the same time it took you to the heart of New York City.” The “ATHENS CONCERT” was released by ECM records in 2011.

In 2013 Lloyd was commissioned by Jazztopad in Wroclaw Poland to write a new composition to premiere at their festival. The “Wild Man Dance Suite” is a masterpiece composed for a quartet of piano, bass, and drums along with the Hungarian cimbalom and Greek lyra. The recording “Wild Man Dance” was released to great critical acclaim on Blue Note Records in April 2015. More recently, Jazztopad commissioned him again, in 2017, this resulted in his multi-media piece “Red Waters, Black Sky.”

“Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, I Long To See You,” features a new group with guitarist, Bill Frisell, Reuben Rogers, bass, Eric Harland, drums and Greg Leisz, on steel guitar. It also has Willie Nelson and Norah Jones as special guests on two tracks. The album was released in January of 2016. They released “Vanished Gardens” with special guest Lucinda Williams in 2018, also on Blue Note.

Charles Lloyd maintains an active performance and recording schedule with the New Quartet, Sangam, Maria Farantouri, The Marvels and special projects around the world. He celebrated his 75th birthday with concerts in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum and the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Lloyd and Jason Moran were commissioned by Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet to compose the score for a new ballet, “Azoth” which had its world premiere in October 1, 2019.

Charles Lloyd, who turned 80 in March 2018, was awarded the prestigious honor of “Chevalier des Arts et Lettres” by the French Minister of Culture in August 2019. At 82, Lloyd remains a vital and creative force in the world of music and arts. In 2020 Blue Note Records released “Charles Lloyd, 8, Kindred Spirits” a limited edition box set of the concert along with a 96 page book of photographs, 4 LPs and a DVD of the entire concert performance. His newest recording the sixth for Blue Note Records is “Tone Poem” ( 2021) and once again, features the Marvels.

To regard a line of improvisation in the key of Charles Lloyd is to walk a spiral from the peaceful depths of one’s soul to the chaotic terrains beyond it. The tenor saxophone with which he is most commonly associated is a scepter that sounds, in his words, “a clarion call to truth and love.” A tender warrior committed to restoration, he sees no lines of demarcation in his music:

“That wouldn’t be right for the tradition I serve. You must have your elixir, and the elixir is in sound and tone. When you’re at the feet of the Universe, she will always bless and take care of us. It’s not politicians we need but sages. Many have their hand out for something, but I try to let my heart be filled so I want for nothing. I live in awe, drunk with the music.”

Hence the moniker of his latest collective The Marvels—featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums—of whom Lloyd is at once leader and faithful servant, a vessel for languages without script. Lloyd debuted The Marvels on the 2016 album I Long To See You with special guests Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and reconvened the band for 2018’s Vanished Gardens which featured Lucinda Williams on half the album. For his latest Blue Note release Tone Poem, Lloyd presents The Marvels without guest vocalists for the first time on a nourishing nine-course meal of spiritual food. Lloyd recalls the genesis of the group:

“I used to play at this club in Memphis, where a country band was always finishing up as we came in. Their pedal steel guitar player, Al Vescovo, fell in love with my playing, and I with his. He and I became friends, which wasn’t easy on account of the color lines. But the warmth of our friendship was pure. I eventually left for California, and we never saw each other again. Years later, I started performing with Bill Frisell—a seeker whose music, like mine, dances on many shores. On the road, between concerts, I was always reminiscing with him about this young musician from my teens. One night, he invited a pedal steel guitar player to sit in on a concert we played at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That turned out to be Greg Leisz. Hearing him brought full circle a childhood feeling of that instrument and its sonority. Thus, The Marvels were born, because what had happened was a marvel.”

Indeed, the fluid way in which Frisell and Leisz finish each other’s sentences speaks of a mastery that eschews boundaries in deference to flow. The same holds true of Lloyd’s rhythm section, which finds coherence in the absence of rules. If Harland is the heartbeat, Rogers fortifies the blood in its arteries. But how is that sound achieved?

“Don Was and the folks at Blue Note believe in me. The songs we create are my children. They come back home with me. There’s an old saying: What you’re looking for is looking for you. As the character of sound flows, the world drops away, allowing you to make a contribution. This is my offering, my inspiration and consolation. Music has always brought me that. It heals me; I hope I can heal others. Even in the wide cast of artists I’ve played with over this long life, I still have beginner’s mind. Only now, I have the benefit of experience to go along with it.”

If one were to see this album as a ship, then the album closer “Prayer” might be its dotted path across a map of time. Although the parchment on which it is marked is frayed at the edges, it has enough empty space left on it for voyages of reconciliation yet to come. The arco bass and pedal steel guitar herein constitute a longitude and latitude, while drums played by hand glow like a compass in the night. Lloyd and his crew sail forth on a raft culled from bits of nature, each ragged and sun-scorched on its own yet, in unity with others, stronger than the waves. In the midst of the vast waters of this quest stands a chain of islands that includes the album’s original title track, “Tone Poem,” which from rhythmless materials builds a gently grooving structure. Next, it swings from sonic rafters of Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Mood”)—last heard in duo with Frisell on Vanished Gardens—and on to the shimmering beaches of Bola de Nieve (“Ay Amor”) and Gabor Szabo (“Lady Gabor”). The latter tune offers a taste of Eastern airs and harks to Lloyd’s legendary performance at Montreux in 1967. Out of the primordial soup of that past, it hits the ground running as a fully formed creature—scintillating and agile. Such is the wonder of Lloyd’s playing: he is a traveler weary of the world yet unwilling to let it pass without a song in which to wrap it. He understands the vision of life as having fallen like a teardrop from a cosmic eye in need of being wiped away. And with his horn, he does just that. This music is so comfortable that it feels like a second skin.

“When I think back on my life and how long I’ve been here. Most of my heroes left long before the age I’ve attained. I am always paying homage in a dream state of bringing a better world, a universe that heals and touches. The model of the world as it exists is very primitive to me. Man’s inhumanity to man continues to cause great pain and destruction.  And yet, the fierceness of exploration stays fresh with me. I’m not here for roses. I’m still blessed and interested. The world continues to make history about generals…but my generals—Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bird, and Trane—are lovers of the heart.”

This is especially apparent in two Ornette Coleman tunes (“Peace” and “Ramblin’”), neither of which were a part of Lloyd’s repertoire, yet which felt organically suited to the band. In both, the listener will find spirit-making sounds, all powered by the solar panel of Lloyd’s saxophone and released in melodic energy. The sense of forward motion here is phenomenally astute and something that, in these times of social distancing, crackles with a level of intimacy the pandemic has all but snuffed out.

“Some of the notes and cries you hear now on my instrument, I didn’t have as a young man. They articulate something. Then, I have these ensembles serving a higher goal. Sensitives are abundant on the planet; they just aren’t given credit for it. To be drunk while also being non-toxic and non-harmful to the world is a contribution worth making, a song worth singing.”

It’s also why poetry lingers even in the absence of words. In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” it sings wordlessly and with a deep simplicity that needed to be explored in this context. And in the temperance of Lloyd’s own “Dismal Swamp,” it turns an individual truth into a universal one.

“I’m an archeologist and astronomer, trying to make a breakthrough. I have this dream that I’m going to melt into the music and I’ll become what it is. It’s such a beautiful gift that I’ve been given of being able to continue to explore. I pick up the instrument and I play and I can’t put it down. It takes me. I go out in nature and come home with these quantum mechanics in my heart.”

Music, because it is connecting to and opening up a spiritual purpose, brings about eternal effects, whereas everything we do in the flesh has a finite existence. But we’re so busy screaming at each other that we’ve forgotten how to sing. This is why Lloyd’s music has so much vitality: it is a gift in song form. It is a refuge.

“We speak the same heart. The heart of all hearts, we’re aligned with that. And the soul of all souls will bring us home. To be at Oneness. There are many windows into this house. You must be sincere and you must have a desire for truth, and somewhere you must have inspirations along the way, someone to guide you who knows the path. It’s incumbent upon all of us to sing that song of the infinite.”

A “dreamer of worlds” is how Lloyd describes himself. In that capacity, he offers inspiration and consolation to the named and unnamed alike. And now, with this sacred book, bound and stitched as an incantation of light, we can dream those worlds together as our own.

Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone and flute
Bill Frisell, guitar
Reuben Rogers, bass
Eric Harland, drums
Greg Leisz, steel guitar

Episode #267

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