With a new release on ECM, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, now 72, was the must-see act at this year’s London Jazz Festival. The ‘psychedelic jazz’ icon of the 1960s talks to Neil McKim
In the 1960s your quartet was labelled a ‘psychedelic jazz group’. Do you have a particular memory of becoming part of the musical counter culture?
It was a time of very high energy and high ideals. A few years ago I was talking to [guitarist] Carlos Santana and he was telling me how much my concerts meant to him. He said he would be in the front row shouting ‘Free the people, Charles, free the people!’. During this period, FM radio had become free-form – you could hear my music, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Ravi Shankar on the same show. In the ’60s the US and England had an exchange agreement. When we went to the UK to perform, the Beatles came to the US – that was the exchange part. Later, when I was touring England with the quartet with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Cecil McBee, I was told that John Lennon showed up to a press conference with ‘Charles Lloyd’ written across his top hat.
How did the recording of your latest ECM disc Mirror come about?
Last December (2009), we had a concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. After the concert my wife, Dorothy, suggested we head back home to Santa Barbara with the quartet and go into the studio to record in a very relaxed way. I wanted to reign in some of the energy of a live performance. We recorded Mirror at Santa Barbara Sound Design [studio] in about a day and half.
You’ve got a couple of Thelonious Monk tunes on the disc. Did you ever play with him?
No – it has been a big regret in my life. His manager called me one day and said, ‘Monk wants to play with you.’ I said, ‘Great. Have him give me a call.’ I was young and did not understand intermediaries. Of course, Monk did not make these calls, his manager did. We shared a double bill many times, but I never played with him. This is my homage to one of the greatest architects of this music.
Why have you included the composition by Beach Boy Brian Wilson?
I recorded on some of the Beach Boy albums – Surf’s Up and Holland. [Beach Boy] Mike Love and I are born on the same birthday… And Brian Wilson was very generous to let me use his studio during my exile years. His compositions are very rich harmonically, and I have always loved the melody of ‘Caroline, No’.
The artwork of Mirror is interesting, showing the photographer on the cover and yourself on the reverse. Was that your idea?
[The photographer] Dorothy Darr has done all of my covers on ECM. She comes up with these ideas, but in the earlier version of Mirror, I was on the cover. It was [ECM founder] Manfred Eicher’s suggestion to reverse the order to make it more mysterious.
What were you listening to that got you into jazz in the first place?
I was listening to Charlie Parker, who was the first big influence on my playing, and Lady Day [Billie Holiday] and Prez [Lester Young]. I would listen to them late into the night. I kept a radio under my pillow at all times, and they were my constant companions and inspiration. Being from Memphis, we were surrounded by blues musicians, but a lot of jazz bands came through town, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstong, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington. Since there were no hotels for blacks, my mother rented out rooms to musicians. I would get up at the crack of dawn every morning waiting for them to come down. Then I would pounce on them to try and learn about the music.
Interview by Neil McKim
Audio clip: Charles Lloyd: 'Go Down Moses'
Charles Lloyd's album is out now and is reviewed in the Christmas issue of BBC Music Magazine