Fire, Flood, Musical Muses, and “One Note” with Lloyd

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 8, 2018
Just the sax, man: Charles Lloyd performs Thursday, March 15, at Lobero Theatre

Mysticism is made manifest via the spiritually inspired saxophone played by Charles Lloyd, the jazz artist whose career began in Memphis in the 1950s, found stardom in the 1960s (when his Forest Flower was the first-ever million-selling jazz album), became an inner-seeking Big Sur recluse in the ’70s and resurrected himself in the ’90s as an ever-evolving artist. Lloyd blended inspired improvisations with forays into rock and several non-Western styles of music in the early days of fusion and world music, and has really never stopped his explorations, which have found him accompanied by a vast array of artists, including, most recently, the pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz and understated guitar wizard Bill Frisell, plus singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.

Lloyd, who has called Montecito home for decades, celebrates his 80th birthday on Thursday, March 15, with a concert that evening as the Lobero Theatre, where he will trace his musical journey from the Mississippi Delta to the edge of the ethereal with Gerald Clayton, Julian Lage, Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland, and special guests. He answered some questions via email earlier this week.

Q. How did the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslide affect you? Did you need to evacuate?

A. Yes, we were twice under mandatory evacuation. We stayed with a friend lower down in Montecito. As darkness fell every night, we could see our hill bright with flames. It was emotional to see as every aspect of life was being affected by the fires – plant, animal, human. Eventually, we got reports that our house had survived. It was a miracle. We are forever indebted to the many firefighters who came from all over the country to defend us, the Sheriff’s Department, CHP, all of our local emergency teams, and to our KEYT news community for their tireless coverage. Hats off to John Palminteri, big time!

The January storm is another matter and very difficult to speak about. The most positive thing that came out of that disaster was the strong sense of community.

In a related vein, I know nature has often been a source of inspiration for you. Did nature doing its destructive thing bring up/inspire anything for you creatively that has or might show up in your work?

I am still processing it.

You are turning 80 this month. Just in general, as a man and as an artist, how does that land?

Eighty years on the planet. Goes by in a flash. The feeling of youth inside contradicts what the calendar says about 80 years. The longevity and experience of life give me more tools, it gives me a deeper perspective. Truth and Love. Transformation. Distillation of sound. Mother’s Grace blesses me.

When you look back on your career, what two or three things stand out that you are most proudest of?

I was blessed to be a musicmaker in this lifetime and I strive to make an offering. A contribution to humanity. Music has always been a source of inspiration and consolation to me, and I hope to bring that to others.

How has your relationship to the spiritual/meditative experience of music changed/deepened over the years?

We are Spirits on a human journey. Every time I make music, it is another chance to tell the Truth.

You are very active and show no signs of slowing down. Are there any thoughts of retirement, or do you just keep going until you can’t?

I am still looking for the one note that says it all. But the Creator dangles it in front of me like a carrot and says, “Not yet, Charles,” and pulls it forward. When I find that note, I will put on my loin cloth and go back into the forest.

Your recent and ongoing partnering with Lucinda Williams – who you played with at the Lobero most recently – how did that come about? What is the source of your connection? Meaning why does it work for you, since on the surface you seem so different?

Lucinda came to hear us a couple of years ago at the Lobero for the Marvels concert with Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. They have known and worked with her for a long time. I recognized a connection between us – a Southern crossroads, you could say. A few months later, she invited me to guest at her UCLA concert. I reciprocated the invitation a year later and also came on stage during her last concert at the Lobero. She’s a great poet. An original voice. We went in to the studio last spring and fall and have created a beautiful recording of my music and her music. It’s called Vanished Gardens and will be released on Blue Note in June.

Speaking of which, you seem to have a special affinity for the Lobero, which perhaps has deepened over the years, with many memorable shows. How does the venue speak to you?

My first concert at the Lobero was in 1981… a follow-up to our concert at the Natural History Museum with Michel Petrucciani… his first appearance in America. I don’t know how many times I have performed at the Lobero since, but there have many special concerts: Maria Farantouri, Jason Moran, Geri Allen, Bobo Stenson, John Abercrombie … It is like performing in my living room amongst family. I warmly remember a performance with my childhood friend, master Billy Higgins. We started the concert with Billy and I walking though the audience. Just the two of us. He had a hand drum and I played my Tibetan oboe. He told me it was important to walk among the people sometimes. I remember a concert that was slated for a couple of days after the Painted Cave fire. We were thinking it was too soon and should reschedule at a later date. But when a couple called in to say they had lost their tickets in the fire and wanted to know if they could replace them – we knew we would keep the concert. It ended up being an uplifting night for all of us. I hope that on the 15th we can bring some joy and uplift to many who have lost so much during these past few months.

You are playing lots of gigs with the Marvels, but on this upcoming show in Santa Barbara – it’s a different group, including Booker T. Jones. Why? Would you talk about the band, especially Booker? And what special stuff can we expect at the show?

Booker and I share Memphis roots. He is from a younger generation… we met late in life at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was clear to me that we could have an interesting musical conversation. Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, who have been with me for almost two decades, will be there along with Gerald Clayton, who has been performing with me for about five years, and the very gifted guitarist Julian Lage, who first performed with me at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival when John Abercrombie was in my group. I think Julian was 12 or 13 at the time.

What do some of the recent awards coming your way mean to you (2015 NEA Jazz Master, receiving an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music in 2015, and last year being inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and The Jazz Gallery’s Lifetime Achievement Award)?

I am honored to have been named into the great pantheon of acclaimed artists who have preceded me. We all stand on someone’s shoulders, and I stand on theirs.


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