For a stretch in the late '60s and early '70s, Charles Lloyd was one of the handful of big-selling crossover jazz artists, playing the rock palaces before Miles Davis arrived at them with Bitches Brew. Lloyd retired from the scene, returned, withdrew a number of times before his final comeback era began in 1986 in association with the esteemed ECM label. Answering a series of questions via e-mail recently, Lloyd opined on his Memphis youth, the verities of folk songs and more. —W. Kim Heron
On growing up in Memphis: It's a river culture like New Orleans was 400 miles downstream. And not only did we have our own local music geniuses like Phineas Newborn Jr. and Willie Mitchell and all the blues musicians, but everyone else came through town: Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton. There were no good hotels for blacks in Memphis in the 1940s, and since my mother had a big house, many of them stayed with us. For a young aspirant like myself, it was a dream come true to wake up with them every morning. ... Elvis used to come to places in West Memphis where I had gigs with Phineas Newborn's father — Phineas Sr.'s band — but I didn't have contact with him.
On that great Memphis denizen Howlin' Wolf: I used to work with Howlin' Wolf around Memphis and across the river, Chester Burnett, "Smokestack Lightning." It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I was a skinny little kid with a saxophone — he was a huge man — and when he sang, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up.
By some accounts, it was the diminutive young French pianist Michel Petruciani who convinced Lloyd to return to the scene in the early '80s: What drew me out was not any argument put forth by Michel, but the fact that I was so deeply concerned about this young man with a great talent and the world of sharks in the music business who were trying to take advantage of him. A lot of people wanted to create a circus around him. The elders had always looked out for me when I was coming up, and I thought it was my turn to do the same for Michel. So I left my retreat for a while to give him a foothold on the world stage. Then I retreated again. It was a near-death experience in 1986 that was the real cause of my rededication to this indigenous art form, jazz, and the life of touring and recording.
Folk songs and spirituals — and pieces that echo them — have been a key part of his repertoire in recent years: My search pulls me in the direction of greater simplicity, of finding that one note that could say it all. Many of the folk songs and spirituals I am drawn to have a simple melody and a deep message in the lyric — from there we jump into the sea of exploration.
He's also composed pieces whose title reference the mystic Sufi tradition and the Sufi poet Rumi: Rumi's poetry and expression of deep truths are what draw me to him. Out of the dry and blistering sands of the desert, he creates a perfumed oasis, and deep cooling pools of spiritual inspiration. I try to translate it into my music.
The Charles Lloyd Quartet (with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland) performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463. Info at ums.org.
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