Saxophonist Charles Lloyd: Wisdom and Wonder at 75

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd: Wisdom and Wonder at 75
Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd in concert at Haus der Kunst, Munich February 2013
(© D. Darr)

The Temple of Dendur was constructed of sandstone sometime around 15 BC and originally stood on the left bank of the Nile River. The politiki lyra is a pear-shaped three-stringed lyre of Greek origin, an ancestor to most European bowed instruments dating back to at least the 9th century. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd was born 75 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee.

These and other histories intertwined on Friday night in the Sackler Wing of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Temple of Dendur has been housed since 1978, and where Lloyd celebrated his 75th birthday in riveting fashion. He played for more than two hours in four different contexts: in duet with pianist Jason Moran; with his New Quartet, which included Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland; with the quartet and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, who is Moran’s wife; and finally, with the quartet joined by Sokratis Sinopoulous, bowing a politiki lyra, and Greek contralto Maria Farantouri, who is as singular a figure in her native country as Lloyd is here.


According to the Met Museum’s website, the “Temple of Dendur’s outer walls between earth and sky are carved scenes of the king making offerings to deities.” Lloyd mentioned “the deities” before playing Friday night. WQXR radio host Terrance McKnight had lobbed him a silly question by way of introduction: “Who does one talk to in order to have one’s 75th birthday fall on a Friday night?” Lloyd might have been answering a more substantial one — something like, “Who does one talk to when they play your music?” Lloyd’s music has long been focused on transcendent communion. It has long taken the form of offering.

On Friday night, Lloyd’s tenor saxophone playing was breathy and ribbon-like when squiggling to or from a melodic line; firmly formed yet transparent, like the surface of a pool, on long tones; broken into split tones during moments of heightened joy or sorrowful repose. He switched to alto flute or tarogato (an Eastern European reed instrument) with equivalent sensitivity and focus. His music was frequently meditative and for the most part concisely phrased. Yet there was a demanding fullness and intensity to his outpourings.

When I interviewed him for a Wall Street Journal piece two years ago, Lloyd referred to his music as “tenderness sutras.” The term has dual references: to the Hindu aphorisms central to the Vedanta spiritual practices he embraced decades ago; and to a specific need he means to address. “There’s a hunger that I sense in the audiences I play to today,” he told me. “People are searching for beauty in a world that wants to shut it out. They’re looking for peace in a world full of disturbances. They get so much stuff that’s been packaged and put in a box. They get the cake already baked. But, you know we have to create this stuff, discover it for ourselves.” Through the years, Lloyd — whose 1966 album, “Forest Flower,” sold a million copies — has been revered as a shaman and dismissed as a showman. In fact he is both, capable of crowd-pleasing entertainment without ever diluting a deeper search — both sonic and spiritual.

The setup at the Met’s Sackler wing, with listeners in front of and flanking the ancient structure, meant that Lloyd and fellow musicians appeared as though literally playing as much to the temple (to the deities) as to the audience. The program was very much about relationships — first, Lloyd’s bond with Moran, which is fleshed out yet further on the CD “Hagar’s Song” (ECM), the contents of which are rewarding enough to crowd out much of the other music I should have listened to since its release last month. Moran once told me about playing with Lloyd, “The serenity he grasps has helped me find a center in sometimes just playing one note, in respecting how a single tone sounds or decays.” Indeed, Moran interrogated a single ringing note to great effect in between verses of the spiritual “Go Down Moses,” one of two pieces sung by Alicia Hall Moran, whose singing matched Lloyd’s finely honed balance of fierce conviction and utter control, and who negotiated a tricky vocal range with sheer grace.

Lloyd’s New Quartet isn’t really new — it’s been around for seven years and has grown into one of the best and least classifiable bands in modern jazz. Like Wayne Shorter, yet with a much different musical agenda, Lloyd has surrounded himself with fearless and inventive players half his age, each possessing a strong and distinct identity. Shorter’s band seems intent on exploding form to achieve something unbound by musical convention or currency; Lloyd’s band achieves roughly the same goal, yet by drawing inward together, almost as if breathing in as one. (Earlier incarnations of Lloyd’s quartet concept can be heard on a five-CD boxed set, titled simply “Quartets,” due from ECM on April 23. It begins with 1989’s “Fish Out Of Water,” which marked Lloyd’s comeback after years in retreat from the jazz scene, and follows him through 1996’s “Canto.”)

The true revelation of Friday’s performance was the chance to hear music from Lloyd’s 2011 recording, “Athens Concert,” in a concert setting. Even listeners familiar with the tenderness and clarity of Lloyd’s singular work would have been unprepared for that riveting two-CD set, recorded at an open-air theater at the foot of the Acropolis. The Temple of Dendur evoked something of the spiritual heft of that setting (though, alas, not the acoustics). Farantouri’s voice was buoyant and light-hearted in some passages, dark-hued and reverent in others; seated, she sang with purposeful command and obvious joy. In Sinopoulous’s hands, the lyra’s tone moved from pure to fibrous. He is a virtuoso player in tune with those of Lloyd’s band, and a wonderful sonic counterpoint to Lloyd’s own playing, especially when Lloyd switched to tarogato.

Before his concert began, Lloyd spoke of coming to New York in 1960 and staying several blocks from the Met — on East 92nd Street in Manhattan, at the home of trumpeter Booker Little, who was an important early influence for him and an old friend from Memphis who died too young. “This was my neighborhood once,” Lloyd said. He talked about inspiration drawn from his visits to Greek ruins, as guided by Farantouri, and of his deepening friendship with the singer.

The glass on the ceiling and large north wall of the Sackler wing is stippled, a museum docent once told me, in order to diffuse the light and mimic the ambience of ancient Nubia. As night fell fully through those windows, the mood was transporting. Lloyd, at 75, exuded an elder’s wisdom, in search of something timeless, and childlike wonder, just playing with friends.

Lloyd’s current tour continues at Boston’s Sanders Theater (March 21); Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center (March 22); and California’s Healdsburg Jazz Festival.