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Remaining True to His Beliefs

Charles Lloyd's jazz sound draws upon '60s idealism, Buddhism and a collaboration with the late Billy Higgins.

December 31, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA BARBARA — To the nagging question "Where were you on Sept. 11?," Charles Lloyd has a pointed answer. The veteran saxophonist was in Manhattan, perilously close to ground zero, when the planes hit. He would have opened a six-night run that very night at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village, in support of his then-recently released album, "Hyperion With Higgins."

Of course, the Village was a ghost town for a few days after the attacks, and Lloyd didn't play the Blue Note until that Friday. Lloyd and his wife-manager, Dorothy Darr, were staying in a townhouse on 11th Street in the Village but had been contemplating a move to the Marriott Hotel, next to the World Trade Center, to escape early-morning jackhammers in their neighborhood. Lloyd, long a Buddhist, remembers wanting to stay put, telling Darr, "When I lived in New York, it was jackhammers all the time. To me, I take it as a humility sutra."

And maybe there was some karma at play for Lloyd--the Marriott was destroyed in the attack. Despite the circumstances, it was another homecoming gig of sorts for the saxophonist, who spent his dizzy decade of the '60s in New York and has returned many times, especially in the last decade.

Homecoming means many things to the alternately itinerant and reclusive musician. For instance, it could be summoned for the occasion of Lloyd bringing his current quartet--with pianist Geri Allen, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Billy Hart--to Catalina's in Hollywood Jan. 11-13. He has performed variously in Los Angeles recently, including at the Playboy Jazz Festival in June and a benefit concert with his musical soul mate, the late drummer Billy Higgins, last January at Bones 'n' Blues.

This, though, is his first stretched-out club run here in four years. Like other recent performances, Lloyd will no doubt dedicate the run to Higgins. One of Los Angeles' true jazz heroes, who died in May after a long bout with liver-related ailments, Higgins was both one of jazz's greatest drummers and a visionary. His performance space/workshop, the World Stage in Leimert Park, was a manifestation of his generosity toward nurturing the future of jazz.

Though less actively engaged in the Southland jazz scene, Lloyd is one of the few internationally known and traveled jazz musicians who calls Southern California home, and has, in fact, lived in various parts of California for most of his 63 years. Born in Memphis, he came to Los Angeles in the '50s to attend USC, moved to Manhattan for the '60s, back to Malibu and then Big Sur during the '70s, and has mainly been settled in Santa Barbara for more than 20 years. But his spread there is more akin to an escape from the outside world.

"I'm a person who loves solitude," Lloyd says. "I love humanity, too. But I have to try to come back to heal. I've found that, around here, I can have a rural setting, but I can still find cosmopolites around. From my sense of it, this has always been a progressive place and open to things. Outsiders and seekers can find some kind of way to function without being put away."

One crisp day just before Christmas, Lloyd takes a reporter into his lavish hilltop spread, just outside Santa Barbara, where he originally moved to be close to the nearby Vedanta Temple. It's late morning and the tall, lean musician is hunched over his grand piano, playing a series of pensive chords. He is disagreeable with a photographer. "How would you like it if I took your picture?" he asks, testily. But soon enough, Lloyd's ready warm side wins out over the gruffness. Glowers invariably yield to tenderness.

As in his playing, Lloyd's moods can be fluid: temperamental and fiery one minute, tranquil and philosophical the next. At the moment, Lloyd seems to be press shy--or press wary--in the aftermath of a fairly snide New York Times story in October. For one, writer Ben Waltzer painted Lloyd as someone whose unique, colorful rhetoric "sounds like Dennis Hopper imitating B.B. King reading Carlos Castaneda." It's nothing new, really: Lloyd has always ridden shifting tides of press affection.

A powerful and poetic saxophonist in the general tradition of John Coltrane, Lloyd is one of the more paradoxical characters in jazz, dating back to his first major gig with Chico Hamilton in the early '60s. Starting in 1966, Lloyd's own quartet effectively introduced the world to pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and quickly became one of the most popular and well-subsidized acts in all of jazz, partly because of its crossover appeal to the rock world.

The quartet met with great popular acclaim, and some grumbling from jazz critics, playing at the Fillmore Auditoriums East and West, and in a star-making set at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Lloyd himself played with the Beach Boys, and plotted with Jimi Hendrix about collaborating. The barrier between rock and jazz was melting at the edges.

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