There’s a poignant moment during Arrows into Infinity, a new biographical film about Charles Lloyd, when the saxophonist recalls a conversation by the bedside of his old friend and colleague Billy Higgins in 2001. The great drummer, who is close to death, declares that they’ve got to keep working on the music. “He’s like 90lb,” Lloyd says. “I said, ‘Are you going to get off this bed and come back and play with me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t say I’d be there, but I’ll always be with you.'”
Lloyd is a spiritual man, which accounts for his absence from music for several years in the 1970s. In conventional career terms, his withdrawal made no sense. His late-’60s quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, had sold plenty of records and made connections beyond the usual jazz audience; they had played the Fillmore and toured behind the Iron Curtain. He had appeared as a guest on recordings by the Beach Boys (Holland, 15 Big Ones, MIU) and the post-Morrison Doors (Full Circle). Nevertheless he chose to drop out, in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations. “They wanted me to become a product,” he says in the film. “And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.”
He moved from Malibu to Big Sur, married an artist named Dorothy Darr, and established a different sort of life, his performing for a while largely restricted to playing the oboe at readings by his neighbours Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Not until 1980 did the French pianist Michel Petrucciani pay him a visit and entice him back to the public stage. Since then he has re-established himself as an important figure, recording a series of albums for the ECM label, where he was teamed first in a quartet with the pianist Bobo Stenson and then with other partners including Higgins, the guitarist John Abercrombie, the pianist Geri Allen, the tabla master Zakir Hussain and the singer Maria Farantouri.
His current quartet features Jason Moran (piano), Ruben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums), young men who clearly relish their interaction with a veteran whose sound and ideas become more exquisitely distilled with each passing year. It’s a fine band, a perfect setting for his breadth of vision. Here they are at a French jazz festival in 2011, giving Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” a rather different treatment.
Born in Memphis in 1938, Lloyd listened to Lester Young and Charlie Parker as a teenager and played R&B with Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker before leaving for Los Angeles. I first heard him as a key member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet of 1962-63, one of my favourite groups of the time. Lloyd wrote virtually all of the group’s material, which — like his own tenor-playing — took its inspiration from John Coltrane’s innovations and marked a fruitful change of direction for Hamilton, away from chamber jazz and towards something more robust. The distinctive flavour of the quintet’s sound came from the guitar of Gabor Szabo, who loved drones and could summon the effect of a sitar, a koto, an oud or a saz, blending particularly well with Lloyd’s flute. They made three albums as a quintet — Drumfusion for Columbia, Passin’ Thru for Impulse and A Different Journey for Reprise — and one as a quartet, Impulse’s Man from Two Worlds, which also included the first version of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower”, which became a hit for his own quartet a few years later.
The recordings with Hamilton are all available on CD, and Passin’ Thru remains one of my favourite albums of the era, not least thanks to the powerful grooves sustained by the phenomenal young bassist Albert Stinson. Here’s a track called “El Toro”, which shows why Stinson was good enough to sub for Ron Carter with Miles Davis and would surely have become a major figure on his instrument had he not died from a heroin overdose while touring with Larry Coryell in 1969, aged 24.
Drugs were another reason why Lloyd dropped out. “I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,” he says. “At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.” His studies in philosophy and religion got him through it, with the help of Dorothy Darr, who has produced and directed Arrows into Infinity with Jeffery Morse, gathering historic TV and concert footage from the ’60s (London, Newport, Antibes, Tallinn etc), film of recent performances with the current quartet, and of duets with Billy Higgins, giving us a chance to enjoy again the drummer’s matchless sense of swing and unforgettable smile. There are interviews with Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Robbie Robertson, Jim Keltner, Don Was, Zakir Hussain, Geri Allen and many others — including, amazingly, Lewis Steinberg, the original bass player with Booker T and the MGs, who knew the young Lloyd in Memphis. There’s also a delightful sequence of Lloyd playing pool with Ornette Coleman; the two were friends in LA in the ’50s.
Lloyd himself, however, is the most interesting witness to the journey that took him from Howlin’ Wolf to Zakir Hussain. The film tells a fascinating story of survival and self-realisation in which his gentle wisdom is as impressive as his music.
* The photograph of Charles Lloyd is from the booklet accompanying Arrows into Infinity, which is released by ECM.