Charles Lloyd: I’m going to sing my song anyway
A spiritual man is blowing his horn to try to save the world, Roger Mitchell discovers
CHASING Charles Lloyd is like grabbing at the tail of a cloud. You can barely grasp his idea before the alert 72-year-old saxophonist and flautist has floated away to a new insight.
“I’m a dreamer. I’m born into the world, but I don’t really fit into it,” Lloyd says by phone from his hilltop property in Montecito, California.
But the Memphis-born musician, who at age 10 used to play in a West Memphis roadhouse where Elvis Presley parked his ice truck and came in “to hear the real stuff”, rarely forgets to answer a question. He just gets sidetracked often on the way to an answer.
On the Friday after 9/11, Lloyd’s quartet opened a delayed Bluenote concert with Cuban Silvio Rodriguez’ song Rabo de Nube, the title track from Lloyd’s most recent album.
“The song translates as ‘I wish I could be the tail of a cloud and come down to wash away your tears’”, Lloyd recalls. “When we played that, people were teary, because it’s a very moving song.”
Lloyd, who is bringing his young quartet — pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer/percussionist Eric Harland — to Melbourne for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, is deeply committed to making the world a better place, and he feels its pain.
“After 9/11 I went home and I was hurting and I went quiet and all of a sudden these old spirituals started coming through me from my childhood,” Lloyd recalls. “I saw the second plane hit. I’m still damaged by that. I saw people jumping out of windows … So I went home and I started playing all these old spirituals … I called the musicians and we all went in the studio and started stirring up the soup.”
Lloyd takes a sidetrack: “Incidentally, when Duke Ellington heard me in ’66 in the south of France, and we’d made a big explosion with the band, he said, ‘That guy over there (pointing to me), if he keeps stirring the soup, one day he’s gonna have something.’”
The latest incarnation of that soup will be Lloyd’s album Mirror, due in September.
“It’s original pieces of mine and a couple of standards, but the flow and the depth of it is so moving and tender. Before 9/11 I made an album The Water Is Wide with Brad Mehldau and (Billy) Higgins and those guys and that was my effort to instil some tenderness in the world. Well, the world must still need more tenderness, because this album is balladic and has some curvature and movement, but I hope that it inspires.”
Lloyd inspires. He grew up “when giants (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton) roamed the Earth”. Elvis, who “was trying to be a musician”, would come over to the house of Lloyd’s pianist mentor, Phineas Newborn, and “eat all their food”. Lloyd played the blues with Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace and B.B. King.
He spent time in the fast lane, hanging out and doing drugs with Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. He went to Timothy Leary’s mansion at Millbrook with Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock.
But Lloyd says he was “lucky to have gotten out with my life”. He recalls being under the dining room table with Hendrix at the Grateful Dead’s house in Nevada. “This guy Owsley (Stanley) would give us a handful of tablets. I’d take two or three, but Jimi would take a whole handful, because he had that kind of constitution. He was moving through here really fast.”
Lloyd is, in his words, “an ecstatic”. “I like to be high. All that drug taking that you busted me for earlier, that was just cheap up and down hitches. It takes inhibition away, but at the same time it puts some kind of stress in your nervous system that takes a long time to work out.
“The thing about getting high with some externals is that you go up but then you’ve got to come down. But when you manufacture it inside, through your hard work, it’s a blessing. Tragic magic doesn’t work is all I’m trying to say.
“Instead of getting it from chemicals and such I checked out the Buddhist path — to go inside and annihilate all those desires and all that hunger for the unreal. Life is a school and we learn from our mistakes. You clean up the ruts in the road and you get out of here free. Now I just get on the magic carpet and come to you. I don’t even need to use fossil fuel.”
“I like Obama. I voted for him. And JFK. But I got short-changed both times. Politicians all make deals. World is like a dog’s curly tail, you straighten it and it will curl up again.
“I want to make a contribution and I would like to see us not defile the planet and not make it so that children coming later can’t live and breathe on it. But the lust and greed thing has gotten so strong that to put the genie back in the bottle …
“The song that I’m singing is the last night of the play and they may boo or applaud. But I’m going to sing my song anyway. It’s not like the politician, I get to sing a song of wakefulness to the planet and most folks don’t know what I’m about. That’s the interesting thing.”
Charles Lloyd New Quartet performs at Melbourne Recital Centre on May 4 at 7.30pm. Lloyd performs with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland as Sangam in Melbourne Town Hall on May 8 at 8pm.
A condensed version of this article was published in the Play section of the Sunday Herald Sun on May 2, 2010
Roger Mitchell will be covering the Melbourne International jazz Festival on ausjazz.net