Charles Lloyd's Spiritual Journey

Charles Lloyd's Spiritual Journey
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Charles Lloyd is a remarkable jazz musician. But just as fantastic is the spiritual journey of his life.

Lloyd, seventy-six, is the subject of Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity, a wonderful new documentary available on home video. Lloyd is also the recipient of an NEA Jazz Masters award, which will be presented to him in 2015.

Born in 1938 in Memphis, Tennessee, Lloyd was reared on swing greats Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Lester Young, among others. Yet he was also drawn to classical music, which he studied at the University of Southern California. A saxophonist (and occasional flutist), Lloyd went on to play with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley before forming his own quartet, which included Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Although a jazz musician, Lloyd also incorporated musical elements from around the world into his music, making him one of the first "world music" performers.

In the 1960s, Lloyd's story got even more interesting. In 1966 his quartet played the Monterey Jazz Festival. The resulting live album, Forest Flower, became a hit, selling over a million copies. Lloyd became popular in the counterculture, playing with the Grateful Dead and at the Fillmore in San Francisco. He was, in the words of Herbie Hancock, "the first jazz-rock star." The record company wanted more from Lloyd, and he got into drugs. His group was the first jazz combo to play in the Soviet Union at the invitation not of the government, but the people.

Then in the early 1970s, Lloyd abruptly left the business. He didn't like the dictates of the record companies, but perhaps more importantly, drugs had taken their toll. He "lost his focus" according to drummer Jack DeJohnette. Lloyd, feeling "off his spiritual compass," traveled to India, studied Eastern spirituality, and then retired to Big Sur in California where he farmed and meditated. It is this period of withdrawal and reflection that gives Arrows Into Infinity its title. Lloyd has always perused the spiritual and transcendent in his music, but he observes that to do so its essential that time is taken for reflection and contemplation: "You can't shoot an arrow into infinity if you're always in motion," he says, "you first have to draw the bow back."

Lloyd was lured out of retirement in 1986, after a near-fatal illness. He was told by an old jazz friend that the music did not belong to him -- that he was "a conduit" for something higher, and that it was selfish of him to withhold that from the world. Lloyd signed with the wonderful German jazz label ECM. From then until today he has produced a series of gorgeous records: Water is Wide, Rabo du Nube, Mirror, and Hagar's Song. Lloyd even reunited with his original drummer from the 1950s, Billy Higgins. When Higgins was dying of liver failure in 2001, he told Lloyd, "We have to keep doing this music." Lloyd replied that he didn't expect Higgins to get out of his hospital bed, Higgins relied, "I may not be with you in body, but we're going to keep doing this music."

It would be false to say that Charles Lloyd is a conservative, but one of the interesting things about Arrows Into Infinity is that it reveals not just a deeply spiritual soul, but a supremely articulate and clear-headed thinker, a man who has both compassion and a steel work ethic. There's a funny scene where Lloyd recalls his exasperation with how excessive and crazy some of the fashion got in the 1970s, and how this could often reflect a laziness in political thinking.

His trip to India was not spent lounging in an ashram -- although there was some of that -- but cultivating new musical idioms to incorporate into his playing. Lloyd's playing is deathless in its richness and spiritual energy, yet it seems to flow effortlessly. It's an effect that can only be mastered after decades of work and practice. In short, to consign Lloyd to the category of hippy jazzman would be to get him exactly wrong, like calling Van Morrison a pop star.

Arrows Into Infinity directors Dorothy Darr and Jeffery Morse have done a masterful job telling Lloyd's story. The film is expertly edited, the pacing is brisk, and the interviews interesting. Religion and spirituality are treated as essential to great art, and the footage of Lloyd playing will send you to the laptop to start downloading.

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