Easton, Penn.— He came out of Memphis to back blues legend Howling Wolf and jazz legend Ornette Coleman before coming to stardom in the bands of Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. By the time he went solo, his Forest Flower: Live at Monterey made him the darling of San Francisco’s hippies during 1967’s Summer Of Love. He’d headline Bill Graham’s Fillmore West with Hendrix, Joplin, the Dead and Santana as his opening acts. He collaborated with The Doors and the Beach Boys, sold millions of records and became a cultural icon.
Then, at the height of his notoriety, he disappeared, became a total recluse only playing his saxophone and flute late at night for the cayotes surrounding his Big Sur retreat in California. His ‘80s return had him recording 16 brilliant albums for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. Then he disappeared again.
Enigmatic, fascinating, Charles Lloyd is that rare kind of pioneering jazzman, like Miles, like Ornette, like ‘Trane, like Mingus, like Monk, eccentric, wildly entertaining, spewing out the snaky lines of a mysterioso kind of bop-swing-world-funk that refuses categorization. His 2015 Wild Man Dance contained the kind of jazz that no one had ever heard before. His 2016 I Long To See You paired guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell with pedal steel maestro Greg Leisz for, again, music with no known precedent. After the improbable and surrealistic election of last November, he put out an eight-minute version of Dylan’s protest song, “Masters Of War,” with Lucinda Williams on vocals.
Now nearing 80, he’s once again at the top of his game. His recent show at Lafayette College’s intimate Williams Center for the Arts was, in a word, magic. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him during the opening two Ornette Coleman pieces, “Peace” (with a distinct underwater vibe) and “Ramblin.” He played the part so well. Apparently, he’s comfortable enough in his own skin now to be the entertainer. Moving, twitching, gyrating his body to every blip, bleep, squawk and squeak of his tenor sax, I swear he even swiveled his hips like Elvis while making such crazy sound! (The last sax man I saw swivel his hips like Elvis while playing his instrument was the late Hank Crawford.)
After two of his own compositions (“Defiant” and “Of Course Of Course”), he positively wailed on the old folk song “Shenandoah” (which dates back to before the Civil War). I had been hungering to hear him play the blues ever since I witnessed yet another of his triumphant returns to the stage at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He didn’t disappoint. He originally wrote “Nu Blues” as an alt. blues and here, on this night, with these particular musicians, it was a swoon-worthy, heavenly, spiritual trip.
You just know he had to play some Monk. “Monk’s Mood” was rapturous, but it was the Christian “Eventide” hymn that had my music teacher wife entranced. Also known as “Abide With Me,” it was written in 1847 by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte as he lay on his death bed from tuberculosis. Days later he’d be dead, but this haunting melody has stood the test of time. He left us with “La Llorona,” a folkloric anthem from the Mexican revolution of 1910 about a ghost (“The Weeping Woman”).
When guitarist Bill Frisell interfaced with Greg Leisz on pedal steel, a trippy, psychedelic ambiance pervaded the proceedings. Pedal steel is usually the domain of country music. Americana Jazz! A new genre! Bassist and band leader in his own right, Reuben Rogers still has that Virgin Island world-beat thing — that he perfected with Wynton Marsalis — spurring his plucking. Drummer Eric Harland is a certifiable superstar and leader, having added so much to the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, McCoy Tyner, Terence Blanchard, Betty Carter and 18 feature film soundtracks. An ordained minister, he is one of the most highly sought percussionists in the world today. Together, Charles Lloyd & The Marvels are amongst the most insinuating of jam bands.
There’s a 2014 film documentary about Charles Lloyd, Arrows Into Infinity, that truly nails his essence. In 2015, he was honored as a Jazz Master by the now-endangered National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In 2018, he has a lot on his plate: the new Blue Note album (with Lucinda Williams) will come out in June. Between this summer’s numerous festivals and week-long residencies at some of the hippest rooms in the country, Charles Lloyd breathes the rarified air of those few octogenarians — Willie Nelson, Wayne Shorter, Kris Kristofferson, Ellis Marsalis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Moore, John Mayall, Sonny Rollins, and Tony Bennett (who’s actually a nonagenarian at 91) — who are still going strong.