Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is a forward-thinking musician whose supreme improvisational talents and interest in cross-pollinating jazz with rock as well as non-Western styles of music during the '60s and '70s established him as one of the key figures in the development of fusion and world music. Albums like Love In (1966), Forest Flower (1967), and In the Soviet Union (1970) were so successful in showcasing his warm, accessible playing style on tenor saxophone and flute that for a time he enjoyed the benefits and curses of the life of a rock star, playing sold-out dates across the world. The pressure left him feeling spiritually empty, and he left the music scene for a decade to follow a solitary path. Since returning in 1981, Lloyd has become one of jazz's true elder statesmen, creating a body of work that reflects the influence of his forbears and collaborators. He has continued to work at a near-prolific pace with various ensembles that showcase different aspects of his musical persona, from his Sangam trio with Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain to his longtime quartet and all-star fusion outfit the Marvels with guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 15, 1938, Lloyd grew up surrounded by the vibrant blues and jazz scenes of his native city. Given a saxophone at age nine, Lloyd eventually studied with Memphis' legendary pianist Phineas Newborn, as well as saxophonist Irvin Reason. By his teens, Lloyd was not only best friends with schoolmate and trumpeter Booker Little, but was also gigging locally with such artists as saxophonist George Coleman and future blues icons including Bobby "Blue" Bland, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and others.
In 1956, Lloyd left Memphis and enrolled at the University of Southern California to study classical music, ultimately earning his Master's degree in music. During this time, he performed around Los Angeles with a veritable who's-who of avant-garde jazz including saxophonist Ornette Coleman, saxophonist Eric Dolphy, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Also during this time, Lloyd became a working member of Gerald Wilson's big band. In 1960, Lloyd joined drummer Chico Hamilton's ensemble as musical director, replacing Dolphy, who had left to play with bassist Charles Mingus. During his time with Hamilton, Lloyd was responsible for writing and arranging much of the music in the band and recorded several albums with Hamilton, including 1962's Transfusion, 1963's A Different Kind of Journey, 1963's A Man from Two Worlds, and 1963's Passin' Thru.
By the mid-'60s, Lloyd had developed into a highly adept writer/arranger, as well as a virtuoso improviser, and regular sojourns to New York City brought him into contact with such luminaries as saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, Mingus, and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, whose group he joined in 1964. Also during this time, Lloyd began recording as a leader and released several albums, including 1965's Discovery! The Charles Lloyd Quartet and 1965's Of Course, Of Course. Lloyd continued recording as a leader after he left Adderley in 1965 and formed his own quartet, which featured future Miles Davis alum pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Cecil McBee. An extremely creative, intuitive, and adventurous ensemble, Lloyd's quartet released several exceptional albums during this time, including 1966's Dream Weaver, the 1966 live album Charles Lloyd in Europe, and 1966's Love-In.
However, this ensemble's appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1966, and the subsequent album Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey, are what truly caught the public's attention. An expansive, sophisticated, and genre-bending performance, Forest Flower found Lloyd and his group in peak creative form, mixing his long-burgeoning interest in Eastern music with modal and avant-garde jazz. The performance was a highlight at the festival and the album was one of the first jazz recordings to sell a million copies, gain heavy radio play, and garner a wide crossover audience during a time when rock was quickly superseding jazz in the popular mindset.
His success at Monterey buoyed Lloyd's career, and he spent much of the late '60s sharing billing at such famed rock venues as San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium alongside artists like guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and the Grateful Dead. Such was Lloyd's popularity that in 1967 he was voted Jazz Artist of the Year by Down Beat and toured Europe, even playing in the U.S.S.R. during a time when the government was discouraging jazz performances. Lloyd's genre-bending jazz dovetailed perfectly with the free-thinking experimentation of the late '60s, and although his music was based in acoustic jazz, many artists took notice and went the extra step toward electrifying jazz, most notably Miles Davis, whose 1969 classic Bitches Brew drew upon many of the same rock and world music influences that Lloyd had experimented with.
In the early '70s, with his career at its peak, Lloyd underwent a spiritual crisis. He withdrew from the public eye and moved to Big Sur to focus on what he described as an inner spiritual journey and to practice meditation. He remained out of sight until 1981, when he met the talented 18-year-old French pianist Michel Petrucciani. Inspired by Petrucciani's immense skill, Lloyd toured with the young pianist throughout the early '80s and released several albums, including the live Montreux (1982) and 1983's A Night in Copenhagen. In the late '80s, Lloyd formed a quartet with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and released several albums on ECM, including 1989's Fish Out of Water, 1991's Notes from Big Sur, and 1996's Canto.
His association with ECM continued throughout the next decade, a time of renewed public interest in Lloyd, and he built a steady body of work for the label, including 1999's Voice in the Night with guitarist John Abercrombie, 2000's The Water Is Wide with pianist Brad Mehldau. In August of 2001 Lloyd issued Hyperion with Higgins, an archival live date celebrating the memory of drummer Billy Higgins, who had passed in May. His 2002 album Lift Every Voice was scheduled to be recorded on the night of September 11, 2001 at New York City's Blue Note club. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, it was delayed until February when Lloyd, with pianist Geri Allen, drummer Billy Hart, guitarist John Abercrombie, and bassists Marc Johnson and Larry Grenadier played two gigs; their material drew from public-domain spirituals, pop/rock songs, R&B tunes, and folk songs, Ellingtonia, and original compositions. The band's collective goal was to illustrate the power of music to provide empathy, compassion, and solace in the face of darkness. Lift Every Voice was issued in October, and has since become one of the saxophonist's most beloved albums. In 2004, Lloyd released Which Way Is East, a collection of duets recorded with Higgins in the months before he died — they constitute his final recordings. In 2006, Lloyd released the live album Sangam, featuring Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain. Two years later he returned with another live album, Rabo de Nube, this time with pianist Jason Moran. In 2010, Lloyd released Mirror, his 13th album for ECM, once again featuring Moran along with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. The live album Athens Concert, featuring vocalist Maria Farantouri, followed in 2011. Lloyd continued touring for most of 2012. His next studio effort was a duet offering with pianist Jason Moran entitled Hagar's Song, which was issued in February of 2013. The same year, the saxophonist was commissioned to write and perform a work for Poland's Jazztopad Festival in Wrocław. The festival also screened Arrows Into Infinity, a documentary that looked at Lloyd's life and career. It was directed by Jeffrey Morse and his life partner, manager, and co-producer Dorothy Darr. The film made the festival and theater circuit before being released on disc by ECM in 2014.
For his second Blue Note release, Lloyd had intended on using a 2013 concert recording made at UCLA's Royce Hall featuring guitarist Bill Frisell. However, producer Darr convinced him to re-enter the studio with Frisell instead. Along with drummer Harland, guitarist Greg Leisz, and bassist Reuben Rogers, they cut a set of traditional and folk tunes, and re-recorded some of Lloyd's earlier compositions, including "Of Course, Of Course," which was issued as a pre-release single. There were two guest vocal appearances: Norah Jones assisted on the pop nugget "You Are So Beautiful" and Willie Nelson lent his voice to a reading of Ed McCurdy's "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream." Attributed to Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, the finished album was titled I Long to See You and was released in early 2015.
The saxophonist celebrated the tenth anniversary of his New Quartet with Moran, Rogers and Harland, with Passin' Thru in the summer of 2017. The live offering featured compositions from across his long career including the title track which made its first recorded appearance in 1963 when he was a member of Hamilton's quintet. It also featured a new version of "Dream Weaver," the title of his first quartet's debut album in 1966.
Lloyd reconvened the Marvels for 2018's Vanished Gardens on Blue Note that also featured special guest Lucinda Williams. The singer/songwriter, who had worked with Leisz and Frisell before, met Lloyd backstage at a Marvels concert. The pair got along well, and before long, she invited him to open one of her own shows. He returned the favor, and the pair decided to work together. Vanished Gardens, co-produced by Darr and Don Was, features Williams on four revisioned versions of originals from her catalog as well as a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel." The rest of the album comprises three tracks tunes by Lloyd, Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Mood," and the standard "Ballad of the Sad Young Men." In the aftermath of the album's release in June, the Marvels and Williams embarked on a nationwide tour for the rest of the calendar year. ~ Matt Collar