Serving the Music: Going Astral with Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd New Quartet and Friends
with Special Guest Maria Farantouri
March 15, 2013
7:00 pm
Met Museum, NYC

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, flute, tárogató
Maria Farantouri voice
Alicia Hall Moran voice
Jason Moran piano
Reuben Rogers bass
Eric Harland drums
Socratis Sinopoulos lyra

Temple of Dendur

Blessed. That was how Charles Lloyd expressed what it felt like to stand before the Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, nodding to the fortune of making a life in music, that torch of never-ending flame. The celebration was nominally in honor of Lloyd’s 75th birthday. Spiritually, however, it was in celebration of all creation, offering as it did the greatest gift of all: beauty. Like the Egyptian temple itself, each tune was transported and rebuilt, stone by stone, until its architecture stood by whim of its own gravity, channeling an energy that flows through rivers wide and narrow. Lloyd’s fingers thirsted for that water, gathering its holistic power in the vessel of his horn until the particles sang.

Strayhorn and Ellington loomed intimate in his opening gambit with Jason Moran at the keys. That unmistakable tenor filled a reverberant space with soul, soul, and more soul. Every run was a flutter of the heart, every split high note a distant supernova. Moran’s quiet flow brought the sound homeward, chiming the ashen bells of recollection until their surfaces glistened afresh. He brought with him a jagged array, sewing ragtime shadows to his Peter Pan feet and running through patchwork fields.

The duo’s brief exhale of “Abide With Me” welcomed the rhythm section to the stage. With a drum roll and a splash the band jumped into raging waters. So began the New Quartet portion of the evening, wherein fire and ice embraced their differences and found peace in aquatic compromise. A solo from bassist Reuben Rogers drew a sidewinder’s path in the dunes, turning heat into nourishment. Lloyd and his band not only rode the train, but also laid the tracks, stoked the fire, and wound through glowing thematic tunnels. Drummer Eric Harland left an ephemeral trail of steam, soloing with the strength of a thousand signal flares. Rogers further pinholed the darkness with constellations to the tune of Moran’s twenty-fingered chording.

From behind his sleek shades, Lloyd turned day into night with every lick, keeping the sandman at bay and digging low only occasionally for effect. It was in this context that his gentle dream-weaving over a Saharan beat provided as yielding a surface as was needed to welcome Alicia Hall Moran into the mix for a spirited “Go Down Moses.” With its serpentine refrain of “Let my people go,” her operatic contralto painted the sheltering sky with prophecy. A gentle cascade from Moran trickled into Lloyd’s “New Anthem,” moving through rhapsodic changes reminiscent of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Fly, songbird, fly.

Yet it was Greek singer Maria Farantouri who spread the richest wings of the concert. Joined by lyra master Socratis Sinopoulos, she assumed a vast presence in her rendition of the Greek Suite from the Athens Concert album. A lone improvisation from Sinopoulos served to emphasize the holiness of the space. Farantouri was the twilight itself, an Adriatic dream realized before the ears. Lloyd and Farantouri always seem to bring out the best in each other, and on this stage the vibe was no different. Traveling down the River Styx and back again, Moran appending thoughtful diacritics along the way, the group inscribed its journey with nary a backward glance. Harland wound a fantastical roll to whisper strength, the lyra tracing a perfect horizon line.

After this two-hour tour de force, Farantouri lightened the mood by singing “Happy Birthday” to Lloyd before encoring with the joyous “Yanni Mou,” thus signing off on a living résumé of the saxophonist’s legacy and influence.

Lloyd live

The morning following the concert found me well rested and in Lloyd’s hotel room, where the star of the hour was anything but. “After I play,” he explained, “I’m exhausted but exhilarated, so I can’t go to sleep. Two, three, four, five in the morning I go to sleep, and now I’ve got to recuperate.” Being the inquisitive soul that he is, he first took more interest in me, my wife, and our new son, asking about our family histories, how we met, the values that drew us together. By the time I got around to my brief questions, I forewent those I’d written down and went with the flow. I asked first about Hagar’s Song, for I’d noticed after listening to the album a few times, and having just heard him and Jason start the concert with some of its material, that a feeling of history far beyond music was coming through. “I can’t get over someone taking this 10-year-old child and wrenching her from her parents and then impregnating the daughter at 14,” Lloyd responded, referring to the great-great-grandmother to whom the album is dedicated, and whose history of enslavement only recently became clear to him. “It’s sick. But here’s the thing about that recording. It’s all part of that fabric. I don’t know why people are trying to separate them. ‘Why did you insert this into these beautiful ballads?’ Some people have asked me that.”

Well, the real question is: How do you take it out?

Right. That came to me, that information, and it was like a wall for me.

What impressed me—and I think this bears testament to the power of music, and the human spirit more broadly—is that an undeniable core of joy comes out in the music. And I’m wondering if that’s something you saw in her spirit as having been passed down through the story. She survived, she gave that feeling…

She’s obviously a beautiful soul. All I can do is reinvent the world. My thing is about beauty. There’s all that ugliness out there. I’m trying to wipe it out with beauty. I’ve always been trying to do that. I can’t change my stripes now. I’m an idealist and dreamer. My dreams are still bigger than my memories. Maybe that’s why I don’t succumb to age or polarities, lines of demarcation…. I’m not the one for that stuff. Obviously, to me she’s very beautiful and I wanted to enfold that. I started out with Strayhorn’s “Pretty Girl” because there was this flower and I don’t know how to not do what I do. Things just happen along the way. These things, they’re all my world.

Did you feel anything different this time around recording a duo album with Jason as opposed to the quartet, or is it all part of the same fabric?

Yeah, you’re naked. We made that sound. It’s a homemade pancake.

Can you talk more about that sound and how your relationship with ECM has built it?

I like the idea of being in one place for a long time and developing something. When I recorded Fish Out Of Water, I just went in and played. Some of the big companies have come to me, but I have a home here. I always knew that ECM made great sound, hermetically sealed, but I need what I need, because I’m a sound seeker.

Maybe sound seeks you as well.

What you’re looking for is looking for you.

On that premature note, it was time for us to go. Before leaving the hotel room, subject to whatever might be looking for us, my wife and I said our goodbyes, but not before Lloyd laid a hand on my son and said a prayer for him in Sanskrit. The silent wonder in the boy’s eyes as life began to take shape in them was as inspirational as anything we’d heard the night before. Blessed indeed.

(To watch the concert in full, click here.)

Breaking down the set

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2 thoughts on “Serving the Music: Going Astral with Charles Lloyd

  1. Thank you so much for this. It was as I imagined a once in a lifetime event! How good to know Charles Lloyd is such a beautiful person too. Your son is certainly having a wonderful life.

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