Fresh flowers, warm waters

Charles Lloyd's journey within and without

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When you talk about performers with unusual career arcs, Charles Lloyd is up there with the Scott Walkers and Alex Chiltons of the world. Lloyd experienced almost unheard-of commercial success for a jazz saxophonist during the late '60s, only to practically disappear for the next two decades. Then in 1989, he reemerged on Germany's ECM label and entered the steadiest, most productive phase of his career, a phase that is still in progress as he celebrates his 70th birthday this year.

Lloyd's best-known album remains 1966's Forest Flower: Live at Monterey (Atlantic), which sold over 1 million copies in its day, a now-inconceivable feat for any saxophonist who doesn't play soft-porno-soundtrack ballads. Lloyd and his quartet, which included soon-to-be-stars Keith Jarrett on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums, managed this crossover success without dumbing down their music or resorting to fusion — which, after all, didn't really exist yet in 1966. Their music was basically a kinder, gentler version of John Coltrane's classic quartet sound: searching, occasionally Eastern-tinged modal jazz with spiritual overtones. Where Coltrane's playing tended to be harsh and severe, Lloyd's approach was relaxed and unhurried, with a softer-edged, gently babbling delivery. During their brief but successful run, Lloyd's group released albums with swirly psychedelic cover art and hippie-ish titles like Journey Within and Love-In (both Atlantic, 1967), connecting with diverse, rock-friendly audiences in the days when jazz's market share was rapidly eroding.

And then? It's hard to say exactly. Jarrett and DeJohnette went on to play with Miles Davis's early '70s electric bands before pursuing successful solo careers, while Lloyd took up residence in the proverbial "Where are they now?" file. Musically, the '70s was mostly a lost decade for Lloyd: his albums from this era — all long out of print — are written off as new age–leaning mood music or, in the case of 1971's Warm Waters (Kapp), ill-fated forays into pop and rock. During this era, Lloyd retreated to Big Sur and got into transcendental meditation, which fittingly coincided with involvement with Beach Boys — and fellow TM advocates Mike Love and Al Jardine. (Lloyd even lent his horn playing to the band's 15 Big Ones and M.I.U. Album [both Brother/Reprise, 1976 and 1978], and several Beach Boys appeared on Warm Waters.) Whatever else might have happened during those dark, confusing times would surely make for interesting reading, but details — sordid or not — are scarce.

Since coming out of retirement in the late '80s, Lloyd has undergone an unlikely transition from mystic and '60s relic to upstanding jazz citizen and elder statesman of the tenor saxophone — though he also plays flute and tarogato. His post-comeback recordings have included younger stars such as pianists Geri Allen and Brad Mehldau as well as august veterans like bassist Dave Holland and drummers Billy Hart and Billy Higgins. Meanwhile, his tenure with ECM has yielded 13 albums during this time, ranging from small group recordings in the vein of his late '60s music to more far-flung efforts such as 2006's Sangam, a live trio recording with Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland. The latter full-length includes some of Lloyd's most fiery playing in recent years, and indeed, if there is one complaint about any of Lloyd's post-comeback material, it's that it's sometimes been a bit too mellow and placid.

His newest album, Rabo de Nube, is a live disc highlighting his current band with Harland on drums, Jason Moran on piano, and Reuben Rogers on bass, all who are roughly half Lloyd's age.

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