I’m a wild yogi, insists Charles Lloyd. I checked out all the excesses. The saxophonist, who reached the peak of fame and fortune in the late 60s with his million-selling album, Forest Flower: Live at Monterey, and appearances before ecstatic youth around the world, is explaining what made him the man he is today. It’s a compelling tale about the tension between art and commerce and the quest to balance spirituality and desire.
Lloyd, 62 in 2000, turned his back on success in 1969 and lived in seclusion until a brief return to performing and recording in the early 80s with the late French pianist Michel Petrucciani.
And by the time that was over, I was bit by the cobra, he explains with his metaphor for love of the limelight. Once you’ve been bit by the cobra, you realize there’s nothing you can do — I couldn’t go back and be a retreat ascetic again. So, after a life-threatening illness sidelined him for several years, Lloyd re-emerged in 1990 with the first of seven recent CD’s. And now I’m out here soldiering again, he says. Lloyd’s quartet — with guitarist John Abercrombie, Billy Higgins on drums and Marc Johnson on bass — will perform at the Aladdin Theater on Wednesday.
His journey has taken him from Memphis, where he played with blues greats Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, to a master’s degree in music from USC while he played at night with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. He later joined Cannonball Adderley before forming the quartet with Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett that took him to superstar status. Lloyd talked about his quest by telephone from his Santa Barbara, Calif. home last month.
Think about it, he says, his voice a cross between sanctified preacher and erudite sage. We showed up in Stockholm and there were these big blonde Amazon girls attacking us! You go down to the Filmore, it’s the same, and you record and then you get a few gold coins and they dangle stuff in front of you . And then you see it’s a hog plum — a big, juicy-looking plum, but it’s all pit and skin. You bite into it and break your teeth off!
I didn’t want to be a product, I wanted to be free! . So I took off my clothes, disbanded the quartet, and lived in a cave in Big Sur and worked on my character.
What I’m finding is that the winds of grace are always blowing, but we must set our sails high. At a very deep level of the music there’s this infinite creativity, but you don’t think that you are creating it. So I’m in the praying modality now: Im asking the creator to give it to me because I love it so much.
The closer I get to the empty vessel, the better my tone gets, the better my music gets. It’s more informed, it’s more simple and deep now. I wouldn’t want to be bringing any music that wasn’t helpful, inspiring and full of consolation.
Indeed, his latest CD, The Water Is Wide, presents a spare, quiet beauty different from his wild improvisational work in the 60s. Even when the music grows thicker and more intense, the notes float by in legato strings that, though complex and sophisticated, barely ruffle the calm.
Don’t mistake tranquility for lack of energy, though.
Remember, I put my six-shooter away when I was still a young man, before I wore it out, so when I came back I was charged up sufficiently that now I can be like a junior elder but with the playfulness and joyfulness of the younger than springtime feeling.