CHARLES LLOYD: PASSIN' THRU
July 13 2017
Saxophonist, flutist, composer, and jazz mystic Charles Lloyd has made music in myriad different ensemble settings over the course of his illustrious career. His 2015 Blue Note release Wild Man Dance was an album-length suite composed for a group comprised of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders, drummer Gerald Cleaver, Greek lyra virtuoso Sokratis Sinopoulos, and Hungarian cimbalom maestro Miklós Lukács. For his 2016 album I Long to See You, Lloyd formed a new guitar-driven band featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz along with Reuben Rogers on electric bass and drummer Eric Harland.
For his latest Blue Note offering, the passionate live recording Passin’ Thru, Lloyd reunites his enduring New Quartet featuring pianist Jason Moran, Rogers, and Harland, a simpatico unit that teems with intuition, contemplation and romping playfulness. Produced by Lloyd and Dorothy Darr, the album is a dynamic seven-song collection of Lloyd compositions that range from the swinging and gleeful title track (first recorded in 1963 when he was a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet) to the sober and longing new piece, “Shiva Prayer,” written in commemoration of a dear friend, to whom the album is dedicated.
An NEA Jazz Master and a vital pillar of the triumvirate of living jazz saxophone legends that includes Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, Lloyd has spent his entire career on a journey to innovatively explore the spiritual realms of wonder and beauty—as described by one scribe as a “strange and beautiful distillation of the American experience, part abandoned and wild, part immensely controlled and sophisticated.” Lloyd’s wide recognition ranges from 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. This year he has been honored by the renowned New York jazz cultural center, The Jazz Gallery, with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his early years beginning in 1965, he was a tour de force bandleader of his first quartet featuring soon-to-be jazz stars pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette. On occasion he returned to the quartet format (including in 1988 a group including Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson), but he considers his New Quartet formed a decade ago “a landmark group nonpareil.” The last recording with the foursome was 2010’s Mirror on ECM.
For Passin’ Thru, Lloyd expresses why he’s documented another chapter in the band’s life. “It’s a small planet, and we are just passing through on our journey to One,” he says. “Every now and then there are important intersections. This quartet with Jason, Reuben and Eric coalesced very organically in April 2007. From the notes of our first concert, I knew that it was a magical formation.”
Lloyd expands on that in the album’s liner notes: “Ten years after our first notes together in Oporto we sit again, at Pasqual’s big table to share fresh, warm tortillas and dark red chili. Our hearts expand, the notes expand. The message is simple: go forward in love.”
In the summer of 2016, Lloyd reconvened the New Quartet for their first extended tour in several years. In fact, Passin’ Thru opens with the very first song performed on that tour: “Dream Weaver” recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival on June 30. The remaining six pieces were drawn from the band’s sublime performance at The Lensic in Santa Fe, New Mexico on July 29. Lloyd dedicated that concert, as well as this album, to the memory of his friend Judith McBean (the closing piece “Shiva Dreams” was “a prayer and meditation for her.”)
His friendship with McBean started when in the 1970s he retreated from the jazz world and sought spiritual refuge in Big Sur on the central California coast. “We were both sensitive outcasts from another life, and our homes were not far from one another,” he says. “When Dorothy arrived in Big Sur, the three of us became family for life. She was not only a sister in Spirit, but a fervent patron of the arts. Without her love and support, I would not be here today. She left us unexpectedly in the Fall of 2014 which created a great void. This concert was shared with her friends and family. It was a way for all of us to pay homage to her beautiful Spirit.”
Passin’ Thru soars with music played in the moment. That’s why Lloyd opted to capture the spirit live rather than in the studio. “The energy of a live recording is rarely duplicated in the studio,” he says. “No second takes.”
Lloyd’s “Dream Weaver” was originally recorded with the debut of his first quartet on the 1966 album of the same name. Here the piece serves as an expansive overture. The saxophonist expresses a lyricism colored by urgency, Moran scrambles rapidly across the keys, the bass growls, the drums tumble as the tune turns into an ecstatic expedition. In the liners, Lloyd cites a quote from the ancient Sanskrit texts The Upanishads: “We are like the spider/We weave our life and then move along with it/We are like the dreamer who dreams/And then lives in the dream/This is true for the entire universe.”
That tune is followed by the reflective and restless beauty “Part 5, Ruminations,” a section of the Wild Man Dance Suite. “It was written as a part of the suite, but was not performed during the recording concert,” Lloyd says. “I performed it with the New Quartet in 2015 at the Village Vanguard as part of the 80th anniversary celebration that Jason curated—and we have kept it in our repertoire.” Also performed at the Vanguard show was the rhythmically complicated new song, “Nu Blues,” that is part bebop and part Memphis blues roots.
Originally recorded on Lloyd’s 1964 debut album, Discovery!, on Columbia Records and covered many times since on his various recordings, Lloyd revisits the easy sweep of lyricism “How Can I Tell You,” and reimagines his tune “Tagore” (a celebration of the Indian poet/philosopher) originally recorded by his first quartet. This time on alto flute he delivers “Tagore on the Delta,” taken on a fun bluesy run with Moran playing inside the piano. “Evolution,” Lloyd says. “Things change. I told Jason to set me up strumming the strings, and it gravitated to the Delta.”
When asked why he chose to reexamine songs from his past on Passin’ Thru, Lloyd responds, “It is not my forte to speak about the music I create. These are my children. The children grew up and left home. I visit them from time to time in different corners of the world. ‘Passin' Thru’ and ‘Dream Weaver’ are among my many children. They left home and came back. I left home and came back. When we visit with each other we find we have more stories to tell. As they have matured, I have too. When I go out now, I bring many more years of experience that I did not have as an idealistic young man.”
Given the immense talent and varied projects of his New Quartet members, Lloyd marvels at how “they have spread their wings in different ways.” However, he adds, that “when we come together as a unit, we find the music and love has only grown deeper. The bond of our shared experiences on and off the stage informs and expands the music. A span of 10 years covers a lot of territory, but in the time frame of the Universe, it is a mere nanosecond.”