A post by Ben Ratliff to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times just named the recipients of the 2015 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Fellowships. Most important for readers of this site is the naming of Charles Lloyd as one of the Fellows, all of whom will receive cash awards of $25,000. Lloyd made significant advances in bringing jazz into the pop domain during the Sixties, when, probably as a result of the Beatles, pop audiences were more receptive to adventurous departures from the beaten path. Having enjoyed more than fifteen minutes of fame, Lloyd then dropped out of the public jazz scene for about a decade.
Lloyd emerged from hibernation in 1981 to help promote the French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who was eighteen at the time. Over the course of about three years of tours, Lloyd “primed the pump” by providing exposure for Petrucciani and then returned to his retreat at Big Sur. After a close brush with death through a medical condition in 1986, Lloyd got back to work in earnest and made his first recording for ECM in 1989. Through his relationship with ECM producer Manfred Eicher, Lloyd once again threw himself vigorously into pursuing new paths for jazz and following those paths into both concert and recording settings. Almost all of these involved playing in a quartet setting with piano, bass, and drums; and, a little over a year ago, I reported on the release of Quartets, an ECM box set of five recordings made at the Rainbow Studio in Oslo (Norway) between July of 1989 and December of 1996.
Lloyd’s capacity for invention in no way abated with the beginning of the 21st century. Since then I have been particularly interested in the partnerships Lloyd has formed. Lloyd moved from his “retreat” in Big Sur to the (somewhat) more urban setting of Santa Barbara, where, in November of 2002, he first heard the Greek singer Maria Farantouri. This relationship eventually led to a concert at the Herod Atticus Odeon in Athens where Farantouri and two Greek musicians (Sokratis Sinopoulos on lyra and Takis Farazis on piano) shared the stage with Lloyd’s “New Quartet” of Jason Moran on piano, Ruben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Eicher and Dorothy Darr recorded this concert and subsequently produced the 2-CD Athens Concert set for ECM. Most of those musicians subsequently toured the United States with Lloyd, and I was fortunate enough to listen to them when they came to San Francisco under the auspices of SFJAZZ.
More recently, Lloyd has been doing some fascinating duo work with Moran. ECM celebrated Lloyd’s 75th birthday (on March 15 of last year) with the release of Hagar’s Song, consisting entirely of duo performances. The major work on the album is Lloyd’s five-movement Hagar Suite, named after his great-great-grandmother. However, the album also reflects back on Lloyd’s “pop” period in the Sixties with Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
Moran is now a Resident Artistic Director at the new SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. At the beginning of this month he gave a week’s worth of concerts as part of the duties of his residency. This included inviting Lloyd to San Francisco for a 90-minute duo gig performed without intermission, which was definitely one of the high points in the current jazz season in this city. Those interested in reading my account of this concert may wish to note that, in writing about Lloyd’s approach to embellishment, this was probably the first time that I associated the name of Arnold Schoenberg with any jazz musician.
Thus, while I took great pleasure in reading about today’s announcement by the NEA, there is a side of me that cannot resist asking, “What took you so long?”