For one glorious three-year period from 1966 to 1969, saxophonist Charles Lloyd was not only jazz’s greatest star, he was among the most popular artists working in any genre. The Memphis-born musician reached a pinnacle equaled only by Miles Davis in the ’70s, and to some extent George Benson in the ’80s: pop stardom without complete stylistic compromise. But the inevitable demands of trying to maintain his career took their toll, and by the mid-’70s Lloyd had deserted music to teach transcendental meditation.
Now, a decade after a 1989 comeback on ECM, Lloyd has made his finest LP since Forest Flower, the 1966 epic that turned him into an icon. Voice in the Night not only features him heading an exceptional band; the disc presents his most spirited, most evocative playing this decade, reminding listeners of his status in the late ’60s as one of jazz’s finest soloists. In addition, 32 Jazz has released Just Before Sunrisea 2-CD package consisting of reissues of Love-In and Dream Weaver, two of Lloyd’s finest ’60s dates.
The first and most striking thing about Charles Lloyd’s tenor sax has always been its sound: He has a feathery, smooth tone, yet he can play with zest and rapid-fire speed. His phrasing remains remarkable; whether straining in the highest register, working in the middle, or reaching down low, his solos never lose their depth or warmth.
Before he became a jazz musician, Lloyd worked in Memphis with B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland during the early ’50s. After moving to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, he joined Gerald Wilson’s orchestra. After that came a stint with Chico Hamilton and his “chamber” jazz groups, then a year with Cannonball Adderley and his sextet. The time with Adderley taught Lloyd that he didn’t have to resort to screams or reed effects to make his points, and that he could play with free-wheeling abandon and still keep his signature sound.
The confidence Lloyd gained playing nightly alongside Adderley led him to form his own band in 1965. The initial Charles Lloyd Quartet featured an emerging Keith Jarrett on piano, veteran Cecil McBee on bass, and another virtual newcomer, Jack DeJohnette, on drums. They made their mark at the ’66 Monterey Jazz Festival, where Lloyd introduced his most famous composition, “Forest Flower.” The nearly 20-minute-long, two-part number contained a weaving, entrancing opening section, an exhausting middle portion keyed by furious tenor and dancing piano, and a bombastic conclusion that included Afro-Latin rhythms, McBee’s jutting bass lines, and Lloyd’s sweeping sax.
In 1967, the Lloyd group became the first American band invited to appear in the Soviet Union, and the first jazz group to appear at the Fillmore (beating Miles Davis there by six months). They made six European tours in the late ’60s and were also among the earliest ensembles to usher in the jazz-rock revolution. They became so popular that Davis eventually tabbed Jarrett and DeJohnette for his band, while bassist Ron McClure (who’d replaced McBee in 1967) left to join Fourth Way. Lloyd tried to regroup in the ’70s and at one point even did some recording and touring with the Beach Boys, but he became so burned out that he finally decided to become a full-time TM teacher.
The late pianist Michel Petrucciani convinced Lloyd to return to jazz in 1982 and spent a year with a revived quartet that also included bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Son Ship. But there was something missing from Lloyd’s ’80s dates on Blue Note, and from his ECM releases in the ’90s. They were all well-produced, and a couple (1984’s A Night in Copenhagen, 1995’s Canto) contained some exceptional numbers. But they lacked the dazzling verve, angularity, and passion of Lloyd’s finest material.
Voice in the Night, by comparison, is a consistent effort, containing both hypnotic ballads like “Requiem” and the title track, and such surging works as “Pocket Full of Blues” and “Homage.” Guitarist John Abercrombie doesn’t do much sideman work these days, but his flickering, darting accompanimentcoupled with the memorable bass assistance of Dave Holland and the unusually soft, subtle rhythmic contributions of Billy Higginsprovides Lloyd with the backgrounds to create both explosive and cerebral statements.
The date’s biggest surprise is a reworking of “Forest Flower: Sunrise/Sunset.” In place of Jarrett’s dancing keyboard, Abercrombie and Holland provide the harmonic foundation, while Lloyd’s tenor, though not as flashy as on the original, adroitly climaxes the number with just a trace of anguish.
Dream Weaver and Love-In came at pivotal points during the Lloyd band’s meteoric rise. The former collection was the quartet’s debut release in 1966, cut right before their first European tour. Jarrett was still getting his footing, and it’s interesting to hear him falter, then catch himself midway on “Sombrero Sam,” or hear the quick adaptations during his solo on “Autumn Leaves.” Lloyd was playing as much flute as tenor during this time, and his approach on the instrument was just as individualistic; he inserted hums and vocalisms, going much further “outside” than he did on sax.
Love-In was recorded live during the band’s Fillmore West appearance in 1967, and the audience’s makeup is reflected by the inclusion of pop-oriented material like “Memphis Dues Again/Island Blues” and “Here, There, and Everywhere.” (Indeed, the Lloyd ensemble was among the precious few jazz bands of the ’60s, or any time since, able to give The Beatles’ songs entertaining treatments while staying true to Lennon and McCartney’s harmonic and melodic direction.) While bassist McClure was getting his baptism by fire, DeJohnette and Jarrett by this time were so in tune that they kept him rhythmically afloat. Lloyd, meanwhile, soared and roared over and under their patterns.
It’s doubtful that Charles Lloyd will ever again enjoy the media adulation and crossover attention he enjoyed in the late ’60s, but Voice in the Night and the Dream Weaver/Love-In reissue signal the resurgence of a special player and composer.
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