Monday, October 31, 2011


October 30

At the age of 73, still blowin' strong.

Charles Lloyd walked onstage last night with his hands folded as if in prayer, an appropriate opening note for a concert that seamlessly blended deep spiritual undercurrents with fresh modern jazz.

Lloyd has been a force in American music for more than 40 years, noted for his facile, seductive horn work and remarkable variety of collaborations. He started out in the blues bands of B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, moved on to play with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley, and in the ’70s recorded and toured with The Beach Boys. In the mid-’60s, he assembled and fronted a jazz quartet of future all-stars: pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee (later replaced by Ron McClure).

The quartet developed an unlikely following among the flower power generation – they played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1966 – and behind the Iron Curtain, where they toured in 1967. That included a performance in Prague (with McClure on bass), which is still remembered as a breath of freedom before the roof caved in with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year.

Freedom is still a hallmark of Lloyd’s sound, from his soaring tenor sax solos to the latitude he gives his sidemen. Each of the three in his current band is a star in his own right: pianist Jason Moran, a leader on eight of his own albums and recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship; bassist Reuben Rogers, who has appeared on more than 70 albums with stars ranging from Joshua Redman to Dianne Reeves; and drummer Eric Harland, who has played on even more recordings with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Terence Blanchard and Dave Holland.

Lloyd calls them “the very best” band he’s ever put together, and after last night’s performance it was easy to see why.

Moran lives in a different world. He plays smart, sensitive melody lines and fills with the group, but in solos he quickly veers into entirely different keys, time signatures and even melodies – then just as abruptly drops back into standard improv on the theme. It’s a unique, inventive style with occasional nods to keyboard masters like Thelonius Monk. But the phrasing and approach are all Moran’s, and they can be riveting.

Rogers is the man of a thousand riffs – he never seems to play the same phrase twice, which is even more impressive when you realize that he’s the rhythmic anchor of the group. He injects sophisticated jazz tempos with funk, blues and grooves, and just when you think you’ve got him figured out, he’s on to something new. No electric bass last night, but he was more than versatile on stand-up, occasionally pulling out a bow for parts that sounded like a cello.

Harland is living proof that a drummer doesn’t have to be loud to be good. He rarely beat on the skins last night; instead, he played percussion, utilizing the entire kit to invoke a full range of dynamics and create distinctive sound sculptures. It was the most intelligent use of drums this critic has seen since Kendrick Scott was here in July with the Terence Blanchard Quintet. But Harland has a language all his own, and when you can captivate a hall full of people with a solo performed almost entirely with brushes, you’re doing something special.

As for Lloyd, at 73 he sounds like a man half his age – clear, robust, fast on the runs and trills, and well-grounded in the tradition. One of the most fascinating things about seeing Lloyd play is hearing echoes of so many people that he’s either worked with or built on – Adderley, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, even blues giants like Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby “Blue” Bland. But his sound has a softer, rounded finish that gives it a modern burnish. And except to introduce the band, he rarely speaks – he lets his horn (or flute or even the piano) do the talking.

Which may be why his music feels so meditative. Lloyd dropped out of the scene for years at a time to retreat into spiritual studies and Transcendental Meditation, and there’s a depth to his music that many artists, no matter how talented they are, never achieve. That quality ran like a subtext through last night’s program, a selection of pieces from his last two albums, finally coming to the fore in “Tagi,” an encore that opened with Lloyd at the piano, reciting verses from the Bhagavad Gita.

One of them could be a mantra for Lloyd’s entire life: “Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness?”

For more on Charles Lloyd:

And while the date is wrong, this appears to be an authentic clip from Lloyd’s 1967 appearance in Prague:

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