On March 15 of this year, multi-instrumentalist and composer Charles Lloyd, one of the greatest figures in contemporary jazz, turned 70. He’s been playing for more than 50 of those years, releasing Forest Flower, an album so classic that it belongs in the same small elite category as Saxophone Colossus and Kind of Blue, 40 years ago. Yet Lloyd, who has made Santa Barbara his home since the 1970s, is at least as relevant in 2008 as he was in 1968. If anything, his most recent works (a series of recordings issued on ECM and including a live set from 2006 at the Lobero) are even better than the classic material that made him a bestseller back in the ’60s.
Lloyd will play the Lobero on Sunday, June 1, with his New Quartet of Jason Moran (piano), Eric Harland (drums), and Reuben Rogers (bass). Their recent release, Rabo de Nube, is probably the all-around best jazz album of the year. Inspired by the breadth of post-bop and world music, the inwardness and intensity of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and his own extraordinary rapport with the late drummer Billy Higgins, Lloyd has created some of the most powerful and satisfying music of the new century.
You have a history of bringing together great pianists with great drummers. How would you rate Jason Moran and Eric Harland? How would you describe their communication? What do they bring to the New Quartet? Was I looking for Eric and Jason? No, but we found each other-that is the important thing. I have always felt that, from the other side, Master Higgins sent me Eric. I met Jason for the first time after a concert with Sangam [Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland] at Carnegie Hall. I went to Eric’s dressing room to say hello to his mother and Jason was there. He told me the music had touched him all the way to his backbone. Later, Eric called to say Jason wanted to play with me : Jason is an artist who is able to reach back through the historical terrain of this tradition and bring it forward with great modernity, and the utmost respect.
Eric is developing into one of the finest drummers I know-young or old. He has an inquisitive mind and learns new ideas very quickly. He has fire and delicacy-nuance. Some nights when I’m not looking it’s almost as if Higgins were here. Reuben Rogers (bass) is also important to the equation. Reuben is from the islands. His concept is beautiful. When he replaced Robert Hurst, I felt the skies open up.
Our exploration each evening is fresh and spontaneous, and the quality of the musicianship is a great inspiration. I marvel at the fact that I can continue to find souls to walk the path with.
Billy Higgins was such an inspiring figure. Do you have any favorite memories of him? The whole of the journey with Billy is beyond words. I first knew him at 18, when I was a freshman at USC. He had it then-he always had it.
He lived a full life and became a very beautiful sage at the end : A few months before he died, I told him I was thinking about packing up my instrument and going back into retreat. This upset him to no end. He insisted that I had to continue. He said to me on his deathbed, “We have got to keep working on this music. I may not be there, but I’ll always be with you.”
Who was Ben Ingram? What does his story mean to you? Is it true that you are writing an opera about his trial? Ben Ingram was Sallie Sunflower Whitecloud’s son, and he was my grandfather. Sallie was a Native American who refused to walk on the Trail of Tears and married my great-grandfather, Ben Ingram Sr. He was raised by them to have fierce determination, independence, and vision. He was a great man who was respected by all who knew him. He was a big inspiration to me. I spent all of my summers on his farm in Byhalia, Mississippi. He had 21 children and made it possible for all of them to go to college. To make a long story shorter-he had an altercation with his white neighbor over property the neighbor had stolen. The neighbor was killed in the process. It went to trial in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in February of 1919, at a time when lynchings in the South were on the rise. After a short trial, he was acquitted by an all-white jury. My wife, Dorothy Darr, is making a documentary about my grandparents and the lives they lived. My opera is being written around the incident and the trial.
We always have to be concerned, and we have to respect all paths-truth is one. Sages call it by various names. The path to peace starts at home, inside of each of us.
The Lobero has become a respected venue for jazz, and you have had a lot to do with that. What do you like best about playing there? Have you got any good Lobero stories to share? I don’t know how many concerts I have played there, but it has been many. [ed. note: Eleven times.] The first concert was around 1981 with Michel Petrucciani. I also remember well the concert in June 1990, the year of the Painted Cave fire. There had been so much devastation that we were considering canceling the concert. But the folks at the Lobero told me that they had gotten a call from a man who lost his house in the fire, and his tickets to my concert had gone up in the flames. [He wanted to know if he] could get replacement tickets. I knew then, we would not cancel. There is always such a deep feeling of community at the Lobero, and it ended up a beautiful evening. Once at the end of a concert, Master Higgins and I walked up and down the aisles with hand drum and Tibetan oboe.
I remember another concert, I was rambling on, as I am wont to do, and my dog, Josie, walked on stage. She had been waiting patiently in the wings, and I guess when she heard my voice she thought the concert was over. The concert with Zakir Hussain and Eric was special because we recorded it with the help of Dom Camardella and later released it on ECM as Sangam. The Lobero is one of my favorite theaters to perform in anywhere. The building by itself has such a history, but then you add all the greats who have performed there : There is warmth and inspiration in those walls.
How has your music evolved in the 21st century? What direction do you still want to explore? This is the homeward journey. I still love freedom and wonder. I’m rowing the boat to the other shore-that is the direction I want to go.
The Charles Lloyd New Quartet appears on Sunday, June 1, at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit lobero.com or call 963-0761.