As our country rattles in a state of division and uncertainty, veteran saxophonist/flutist Charles Lloyd soldiers on with his mission, sharing pensive, spiritual jazz that serves as sonic food for the soul.
“Every time I take the bandstand, it is another chance to tell the truth,” Lloyd, 78, says via email from a tour stop in Germany. “The music changes the molecules in the atmosphere, and through sound we create a harmonious world, if even for one night.”
Lloyd conjures natural harmony with his latest band, the Marvels, supplementing his longtime rhythm section of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland with silvery-toned guitarists Bill Frisell and pedal-steel specialist Greg Leisz.
“Greg and Bill have been playing together for years and have amazing telepathy,” Lloyd says. “Bill and I share a deep love for each other. We are both Pisces. He is an extreme sensitive and a creative soul. We don’t need to talk about the music—we share our thoughts through sound.”
That’s clear on the Marvels’ quietly penetrating debut, I Long to See You, released in January and a wellspring for Dec. 2-3 shows at Scullers Jazz Club. The album opens with a majestic, smoldering version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” stretched into an eight-minute rumination. “I felt it was time again—I wish that was not so,” Lloyd says of the anti-war song penned by his onetime neighbor in Greenwich Village. “There are probably many [listeners] who don’t know the lyrics and hear it only as a strong, rhythmic instrumental piece. For those who know the words, I think it has an added dimension.”
Lloyd originally wanted to be a singer (“I developed a love for the saxophone with the realization that it could become my voice,” he says), and he enlisted vocalists for two other covers. “You Are So Beautiful” features Norah Jones. “I have always heard Norah in my mind’s ear singing with me,” he says. “She made the song ethereal and dreamy.” And Willie Nelson graces “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” “Willie has represented independence and freedom for a long, long time,” Lloyd says. “His road-weary voice is particularly poignant, paired with the lyrics.”
I Long to See You also showcases Lloyd’s compositions in a pair of his rerecorded mid-’60s pieces, plus the free-blowing, 16-minute closer “Barche Lamsel,” named after a Buddhist prayer. Yet the focus tilts toward traditional tunes like “Shenandoah” and folk/pop standards. “There are many haunting, simple melodies that speak to me,” he says. “When you love music, you love a lot of it.”
A native of Memphis with equally broad ancestry (African, Cherokee, Irish and Mongolian), Lloyd grew up under the spell of sax icons Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Yet as a teenager, he served as a sideman with blues greats Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King before moving to LA to earn a classical music degree, studying with a Bartok expert, and ended up jamming in the clubs with Ornette Coleman. Lloyd also made an early entry into world music, collaborating with Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji between gigs with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley.
But Lloyd found initial fame with his original quartet, which featured pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette before Miles Davis swiped them for his own band. The Charles Lloyd Quartet recorded one of jazz’s first million-sellers in 1966’s Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey and opened for rockers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium.
“They wanted to be on concert bills with us and learn how to stretch out and improvise,” says Lloyd, who went on to record and tour with the Beach Boys during a break from jazz in the ’70s. “Barriers were down, ideals were high.”
He’s continued to blaze his own trail since returning to jazz in the ’80s, and his recent output remains ever vital. “I continue to look for the note reflected on the water,” Lloyd says. “When I have found it, I will lay down and return to the forest.”
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels play Scullers Jazz Club on Dec. 2-3.