Photograph by Dorothy Darr

Saxophonist, flautist and composer Charles Lloyd has been at the forefront of the music for more than sixty years. From his early work and recordings with drummer Chico Hamilton’s group in 1962, and a two-year tenure with Cannonball Adderley, the saxophonist was showing that here was a new and unique voice just waiting to be heard.

Heard it certainly was, as Lloyd put together his own groups in 1964 and by 1966 formed his classic quartet with Jack DeJohnette, Cecil McBee and Keith Jarrett. The quartet’s album Forest Flower recorded live in September 1966 and released early the following year was a huge success and the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies.

At the height of his early success, Lloyd took a hiatus from music that lasted for more than a decade. Gradually returning to music in the 1980s, he quickly demonstrated that he had lost none of his musical prowess and was playing better than ever.

Since then, Charles Lloyd has been making some excellent albums either in the studio or capturing the magic of the various groups he has led live in concert. With his last studio album having been made in 2017, when the news broke that there was to be a new recording from Lloyd it was greeted with eager anticipation.

Released to coincide with his 86th birthday on 15th March, The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow does not disappoint in a double album that includes six new compositions. When asked why now to make a return to the recording studio, Lloyd simply said that “By the time the Spring of 2020 and the onset of the first wave of COVID was upon us, we had had nearly four years of a disastrous and divisive presidency.” The saxophonist has often advised that he feels the need to create when times are unsettled, and the time was just right and calling out for calm and a sense of beauty to prevail.

To find out more about the new recording and quartet, Nick Lea asks the questions.

One of the immediate things that is striking about the music heard on The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow is the empathy between yourself and pianist Jason Moran. This is a musical association that goes back a number of years, and one that has resulted in some incredible music. Can you recall your first meeting with Jason, and describe how this musical bond had flourished and deepened over time?

I met Jason in 2006 after a Sangam concert Zankel Hall in NYC. He came backstage to say hello to drummer, Eric Harland – they are both from Houston and knew each other since high school. Jason enthusiastically told me he felt the music all the way to his backbone. This was a Southern thing to say, and I felt connected to him. About a year later, Geri Allen, whom I love and is a wonderful musician, had a conflict in her schedule – when I asked Eric who would be good to take on tour with us, he said Jason would like to play with you, “He understands.” The rest is history.

Another musician who you have a strong rapport with is bassist Larry Grenadier who has been in and out of your musical orbit for some time too. How did you meet and get to play with Larry, and what does he bring to the music that you don’t hear in other bassists?

I had invited Brad Mehldau to do a couple of concerts with me when he was living in LA. Billy Higgins was with me then and I wanted to make a recording in LA with Billy because it was hard for him to travel. Billy and I were very close, and I wanted Brad to be comfortable, so I asked him who he’d like to have on bass. He recommended Larry… we have made some beautiful music together and continue to do.

The newest member of the quartet is drummer Brian Blade, a musician who you have been wanting to play with for many years. What delayed the meeting between the two of you, and how do you feel that Brian has contributed to the overall sound of the quartet?

I have known Brian since the mid 1990s and had always planned to ask him to play with at some point. In the Spring of 1997, I was invited to perform at Town Hall in NYC

and since Billy Higgins had not been able to travel since his liver transplant, I asked Brian if he could do the date with me, and he was scheduled to do so. But when Master Higgins found out about the concert, he said; “I think I’m ready to travel and could do the concert.” How could I say no?

It has been a number of years since you have been in the studio to record, although you have released a few live albums in the interim. How was the atmosphere in the studio during the making of the album?

We recorded in my hometown studio, Santa Barbara Sound Design with Dom Camardella. We’ve done many projects together, so it is relaxed on many levels. Time is precious – I am not able to put in 12-hour days in the studio any longer – so the focus was intense and full of intent. We were all ecstatic to be making music together.

There is obviously a big difference recording in the studio to capturing a live performance. Do you have a preference?

Both can be great. In the studio there are no distractions other than to make the music and capture the best sound and the best edition of the composition. I don’t like to do more than one or two takes. When it is live, the audience becomes an added participant and generates another kind of energy.

Prior to signing with Blue Note you had a productive association with ECM recording 16 albums for the label. Manfred Eicher always had a very hands-on approach to producing. Is there a similar process at Blue Note?

I have had a free rein at both Blue Note with Don Was, where Dorothy and I have produced all of my recordings. Manfred Eicher produced the first five albums on ECM, but from The Water Is Wide onward, Dorothy & I produced the recordings. I appreciate the freedom both labels have given me.

You have an extensive discography under your own name from 1964 to the present, and for many different labels from Columbia, Atlantic, ECM and Blue Note among others. Do have a specific period or time with a label that has been a highlight in your career, or is more of a continuous journey that is constantly evolving with new associations along the way?

I feel that now is the most poignant leg of my journey. It keeps unfolding and extending in unexpected ways. I try to maintain “beginners mind” to be open to the possibilities that arise before me.

You have also taken a number of breaks away from music. The first was when the quartet with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette was at its height of popularity and you took a sabbatical from public performance that lasted a decade. What prompted the decision to move to Big Sur and leave the music scene behind?

I took a 10-year hiatus when I moved from NYC to Malibu, California in 1969, and then a couple years later, I went up the coast to Big Sur. I needed more solitude.

It appears to have been the gifted pianist Michel Petrucciani that persuaded you to return to music. What was it about Michel that made you decide to return at that point in time?

I saw in Michel a great talent that was fresh and vibrant. The elders had always helped me, and I felt I needed to help him establish a footing on the world stage – so I left my refuge for two years and took him around the world.

There was a return to Big Sur in 1983 prior to you return to active music making five years later. Since then, you have maintained a constant and consistently high recorded output and many live performances. What rejuvenated you to return a second time to music, and kept you working so productively thirty years?

I 1986, I nearly died. I had emergency surgery and lost half of my small intestine. The doctor told me I was a few hours from death and for a few weeks I was partly here and partly there. As I became stronger, I realized that I was kept on Earth to make music – that is my dharma. I am in service to humanity – so – I began to travel more broadly in 1987 and then made my first recording for ECM in 1989. The rest is history.

Looking back at your long and distinguished career, you have always held a special regard for the time that you spent in Cannonball Adderley’s band, and the role that the altoist had on your development. What is that you learned from Cannonball that has served you so well?

Both Chico Hamilton and Cannonball gave me a lot of freedom. I admired Cannonball’s openness to new ideas and the way he kept moving things forward.

Coming right back to the present, what plans do you for the quartet going forward? You all have busy schedules; do you feel it might be possible to be able to get together for live performance and hopefully some more recordings?

We just did the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which was great! I have a series of concerts this Spring; Sao Paolo, Brazil, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston South Carolina, Portsmouth New Hampshire, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. We will return to Europe in July with the amazing Sky Quartet with Jason Moran, Larry Grenadier and Eric Harland will replace Brian Blade. We had a beautiful concert together at the Big Ears Festival last March – they are free Spirits and we come together when we can.

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Click here to read our review of The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow