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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd's music benefits from deep introspection

Charles Lloyd performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday, April 28, 2018, in New Orleans.
Amy Harris
flickr/public domain
Charles Lloyd performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday, April 28, 2018, in New Orleans.

If you find yourself with physical knots that need untying, you might seek out a good massage therapist. If mentally you’re craving some therapeutic sounds, the NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd can help.

Any of his albums on the ECM label would suffice; one called Notes from Big Sur always does it for me. There’s a suite on it called "Pilgrimage to the Mountain," where Anders Jormin begins with a couple of minutes bowing the bass, and then Lloyd’s tenor sax rolls in like the fog, as if it was one of the natural elements along that stretch of the California coast: the wind in the redwoods, the waves on the shore.

This music, like all great music, speaks for itself, but I appreciate it even more for what led up to it.

Lloyd was born in Memphis in 1938, in a big house – large enough that his parents rented out rooms for artists passing through for concerts. So Lloyd met many impressive jazz stars when he was young. He wanted to play the sax from the age of three. At nine his parents finally relented, and he played that sax everywhere – even in the bath tub.

Pianist Phineas Newborn became Lloyd’s mentor, encouraging lessons, which led to gigs with some major blues figures: Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King and others. Lloyd eventually headed to L.A. to study classical music at USC, while simultaneously immersing himself into the West Coast jazz scene.

In 1960, Lloyd took Eric Dolphy’s place as music director of Chico Hamilton’s group, which proved to be a fertile lab to compose and find his own voice as a saxophonist and flutist. Four years later Lloyd joined Cannonball Adderley’s sextet, and just a year after that formed his own powerhouse quartet, with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette. Their second release together was a famous live album capturing a 1966 performance at Monterey, called Forest Flower. That was one of the first jazz records to sell a million copies.

That incarnation of the Charles Lloyd Quartet had crossover success, getting airplay on FM radio. Lloyd appeared on recordings with the Doors and the Beach Boys. All that exposure and popularity was matched by critical acclaim.

Lloyd was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” by DownBeat in 1967, and his quartet toured all over the world – and I mean all over. At the height of the Cold War, Lloyd’s group was the first from the U.S. to play at various cities in the Soviet Union.

But with his career ascending, Lloyd pulled the plug on the quartet in 1970 and stepped out of the jazz scene altogether, initiating a phase of deep introspection at Big Sur.

It took more than a decade before Lloyd was compelled to step back into the jazz ring. What triggered it? An 18-year-old French pianist, Michel Petrucciani, arrived at Big Sur, and Lloyd realized their musical relationship could be something special. It was. Here’s Lloyd playing the Chinese oboe, along with the young Petrucciani at the 1983 Copenhagen Jazz Festival:

A later quartet featured the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. Yet another – under the group name The Marvels - includes guitarist Bill Frisell. In 2022, Lloyd gifted us with a series of CDs called Trio of Trios – all featuring different sidemen at various venues.

One last recommendation: The 2002 double CD Lift Every Voice was Lloyd's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time it was hard to imagine an artist coming up with a more appropriate salve. Here’s a sample, with the late Geri Allen at the piano:

The vast majority of Lloyd’s contributions over the decades are his own compositions, but considering his stature, not much of Lloyd’s work has been covered by others. I can’t help but think a lot of musicians have come to the conclusion that Lloyd’s music is so decidedly his – that it’s probably better left that way.

Carl Pogue fell in love with radio ever since getting a degree in the field over three decades ago. He’s spent his entire working career at commercial and public stations, with stops in Portland, San Diego, as well as NPR’s furthest affiliates on the Micronesian islands of Guam and Saipan.