Often cited as America’s greatest indigenous art form, jazz wriggles away from any univocal definition, resisting the confines of a single track like water flowing on broken ground. For the veteran saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd, a long-time Santa Barbara resident who has just released a new studio album, Mirror, jazz represents an art form, a musical language, and an approach to life that has served him for decades. On Friday, September 24, Lloyd and his New Quartet—with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums—will perform at the Lobero Theatre before embarking on a European tour that includes dates in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, and Poland. The Lobero concert has become a tradition not only for Lloyd and his musicians, but also for the city of Santa Barbara, which turns out in force to commune with this spiritual leader every time he appears.
One of the great paradoxes of jazz as a popular music is the way that a handful of recordings, many of them now fifty or more years old, still tend to dominate sales and reap the lion’s share of attention from old and new fans alike. While there’s no question that such albums as Kind of Blue (Miles Davis) and Giant Steps (John Coltrane) are true masterworks that have only gained in stature over time, it can seem to musicians working today that they are competing with the ghosts of the past when it comes to finding an audience. Charles Lloyd, however, makes for an important exception to this tendency. He has one of those unstoppable classics in his back catalogue—the immortal Forest Flower, recorded live with a young Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette back in 1966—but he also has a string of equally memorable and increasingly popular discs recorded in this century for the German label ECM. Maybe it’s the stunning views of our Channel Islands from his home in the Montecito hills, or his commitment to Vedanta, or simply a work ethic that won’t allow him to rest on his laurels, but Lloyd remains as relevant, engaging, and dynamic a musical force today as he was when he arrived on the scene fifty years ago.
I spoke with Charles Lloyd at his home a week ago about his music and the conditions that make great new jazz possible in the 21st century.
The new record is out and you are back on tour. How does it feel to be doing this again?
I know that at this point I’m supposed to be some kind of junior elder, but I approach life with a beginner’s mind, so it’s all still amazing to me. To play this kind of music requires that you become absorbed in something bigger than yourself. It’s the manifestation of a trusting relationship that exists among the musicians and extends outward through the music. Through these sought-after qualities of trust and clarity within the ensemble you can sometimes achieve a state where you are playing together and you feel that you are soaring. It’s like walking on water, and like crossing the Ganges in the fable, you’ve got to trust it, because there’s no looking down or going back.
It would be easier for you to sit back at this point and maybe not press so hard to make new music. What keeps you going?
I have always had the blessing of music passing through me, even before I was any good! [Laughs.] When I was a child I played the saxophone in the bathtub, and I was not necessarily playing very well yet, but I loved the sound of the instrument, and the feeling it made going through me, and the way it connected to my breath. I was left alone a lot as a child, and I had to find a way out of that loneliness. If no one wanted me, I had to want myself, and music became my salvation, a form of meditation that allowed me to reconstruct the universe on my own terms.
Where and when did you first begin to see that music would be your life’s work?
The milieu that I came up through [New York in the 1950s and 1960s] was rich with musical genius, so I was fortunate in that regard. That’s where I first learned the big lesson of creation, which is that you must always go forward. I was so enamored of Lester Young’s sound, of the tenderness in it. That’s part of why I still play these beautiful saxophones from the 1920s and the 1930s, because they have the pre-war feeling; the metal is different. Of course a younger player today might not appreciate these older instruments because they don’t have the flash, the speed of the best new horns. It’s like there are these Ferraris out there, but I’ve sacrificed that glitziness for the burnished feel of an old Packard or something. Now all I’ve got to do is find a way to run the Packard without fossil fuel!