Saxophonist Charles Lloyd, still stirring the soup at eighty-four
It was a vintage year for vintage musicians. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson both turned eighty in June, and both have toured. Please also give it up for Charles Lloyd, the eighty-four-year-old saxophonist who not only toured Europe this summer but is also releasing three new albums, each recorded with a different trio – “Trio of Trios”.
Lloyd was recently in town and on a steamy Sunday night he played a sold-out two and a half hour show, performing with one of his trios and also with a quintet. The venue was Sony Hall, in a basement in Times Square that once housed Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe showgirls when Lloyd was a kid in Memphis. He seemed to have the passing decades in mind when, before his first issue, he told the audience, “I thought when I was a junior that by the time I got older things would be settled.” He’s laughing. “But we have the music,” he added, a blessing.
People often describe a teenage fuddy-duddy as an old person in a young person’s body; Lloyd is a young person in the body of an old person. With wisps of white hair sticking out from under a gray toque, he sometimes seemed frail and he took breaks on a bench while his colleagues performed solo. But he was also shaking and bouncing on the soles of his feet when he felt the music. His pleasure was contagious, his acting both cerebral and exuberant.
Two days later, in a hotel suite in SoHo, Lloyd was listening to Chopin on his laptop. Dorothy Darr, his wife, manager, producer and general creative partner – she did the paintings on the covers of “Trio of Trios” – walked in and out. Lloyd has a unique conversational style, veering off on tangents – memories leading to musicology leading to metaphysics – and finding his way back to an initial point. “My filing cabinet has been blown up now,” was how he described his thought process.
His career arc has a missing middle. After a few plum apprenticeships, he formed a quartet in 1965, with Keith Jarrett, then unknown, on the piano. The group had several gold records on the Atlantic and transitioned to rock audiences, playing the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967 (three years before Miles Davis did). But the tours got to Lloyd; Atlantic’s “plantation system” too; drugs too. He holed up in Big Sur “on sabbatical” for much of the seventies and eighties. “I needed to heal,” he said. He sat with the Beach Boys and remains friends with Brian Wilson and Mike Love. But he renewed his services to his own muse in the mid-80s and has since released a series of albums, playing with bands of jazz and world musicians, in addition to Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Lucinda. Williams.
The first song he performed at Sony Hall was “Blood Count”, by Billy Strayhorn, by Duke Ellington longtime arranger and collaborator. The piece, a pensive, bloated ballad, was Strayhorn’s last, written in a hospital bed as he died of esophageal cancer, in 1967. It has particular resonance for Lloyd. When he was growing up, his mother took on entertainers who were barred from segregated hotels in Memphis, including Ellington. Lloyd, in love with the saxophone since discovering one in his grandfather’s house at the age of three – “I saw those mother-of-pearl keys! – clung to every word of the musicians. “I was in heaven,” he said. “I would wait for these guys to get up in the morning because I had so many questions.” One day his mother told Ellington that her son wanted to be a musician. “Duke said, ‘No, he’s got to be a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief, because that stuff is too hard – life. Don’t let him do that. But then I was bitten by the cobra, and there was no turning back.
A few decades later, in 1966, Lloyd’s first quartet was playing the jazz festival in Antibes, France, sharing a hotel with Ellington and his band. “Duke heard me play,” Lloyd recalled. “And said something like, ‘If he keeps stirring the soup, one day he’ll have something.’ He didn’t realize I was the kid he stayed with. During the festival, the Ellington musicians took Lloyd under their wing; some of them took him to the nearby grave of Sidney Bechet. Of the Ellingtonians, Lloyd said, “To me they were just magical beings.”
“What keeps me younger than spring is I’m still learning, I’m still growing,” he continued. “I have experience, but I have a rookie’s mind, and that’s a blessing.” Still, he admitted, the hassles of touring continue to weigh on him, especially now that he and Darr have a beautiful mountain home in Montecito, Calif., on Oprah Winfrey’s route. (He has yet to meet the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, also neighbors.) He thought about slowing down, at one point. “The Creator has a carrot on a stick,” he said. “And He said, ‘Not yet, Charles.’ I try to make it, you know, and I always fail. That’s another reason I never quit, because I was never good enough to quit. The soup still needs to be mixed. ♦