Friday, July 21, 2006

Charles Lloyd in Our World

Charles Lloyd visage graces recent covers of Downbeat, UK’s Jazzwise and NY’s All About Jazz, promoting his new ECM release Sangam. He has the same distant, searching look familiar from the photos of Dorothy Darr. Lloyd’s jazz is informed by his Memphis blues roots, his apprenticeships with Cannonball Adderley and Chico Hamilton, and his continuing interest in Eastern musical forms and philosophy. Lloyd may seem otherworldly, but he is most definitely of this world.

Lloyd is celebrated for his performance at a 1967 Tallinn jazz festival, one of the first performances by an American jazz artist behind the Iron Curtain. However as musician Paquito D’Rivera relates in his autobiography My Sax Life (full review to come soon), the Party authorities were not keen on the possible effect of Lloyd’s jazz on the audience, and tried to direct him towards more propaganda friendly photo-ops.

Lloyd and his sidemen would not play that game. According to D’Rivera: “the four of them staged a protest on behalf of artistic freedom. They lay on the ground and would not move until they were allowed to perform for their fans at the festival. They even went as far as accusing the authorities of racism, knowing that the government would be embarrassed by such a charge on their soil because Communists often boasted that they were free of that capitalist evil.” (p. 172) When there were finally allowed to perform the results were transcendent.

When asked about his Soviet experience in an interview many years later, Lloyd replied: “The people were repressed by politics, but their hunger for freedom made them want our music even more. I think they recognized the music was our own path to personal freedoms.”

Musically, Lloyd would continue to develop, experimenting with Eastern forms, and even fusion. After a long hiatus, he returned to performed, recording a string of excellent sessions for the ECM label. On September 11, 2001, he was scheduled to start a stand at the Blue Note. Again, events from the outside world intervened. Lloyd started his Blue Note engagement that Friday, with a series of free shows designed to encourage patrons to come back to the clubs, and raise New Yorkers flagging spirits in general. He added spirituals and other reflective songs to his set list, in what ultimately became the 2-CD Lift Every Voice, again on ECM.

At times mournful, it might be his best recorded work, and an excellent entry-point to his catalog for listeners unfamiliar with his music. Despite the presence of pop covers like “What’s Going On,” the music is at a consistently high level, and the emotional impact is considerable. “Hymn to the Mother” with its long introduction by John Abercrombie seems a particularly moving meditation on loss and grief.

Lloyd has contributed much to jazz. His Forest Flower is an acknowledged classic, and he has brought the music a wider audience through his 1960’s concerts at the Filmore. He is worthy of the cover-story attention, for many reasons. He is a jazz legend, bordering on the unearthly, but has contributed much to this world.