As comedian Dick Gregory said during the 75th birthday celebration of saxophonist Charles Lloyd at the Kennedy Center last night, "Follow the career of Charles Lloyd and you'll have a map of the world". This concert was proof of that.
Lloyd originally came to prominence in the 1960's, first as a member of one of drummer Chico Hamilton's groups, then with his own band. Lloyd was a pioneer in using rock and funk rhythms in his group's music though, unlike later experimenters such as Miles Davis, he never went electric. He had a big hit with his tune "Forest Flower" and his quartet, which included young pups like Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, played at rock venues like the Fillmore East. Then in the 1970's he abruptly dropped from sight, retreating to a hermit's life in California's Big Sur country, studying transcendental meditation and emerging only to record with such folk as the Beach Boys (He plays flute on "Feel Flows" on the Surf's Up album.) Then in 1981 he reemerged to mentor and play with pianist Michel Petrucianni and at the end of the decade began to record for the ECM label where's he been a constant presence ever since.
What's been notable about the last twenty years of Lloyd's career, other than his playing with heavyweight artists like Bobo Stenson, Geri Allen, Billy Higgins and Jason Moran, is the way he has more and more embraced musics from other cultures. That was on display through the guest artists who appeared at the Kennedy Center show. It began with Lloyd walking out with his current quartet, Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland accompanied by Alicia Hall Moran, Jason Moran's wife and an accomplished classical singer. She sang the spiritual "Go Down Moses" slowly and powerfully and Lloyd answered her, sololing on his tenor sax with a tone that was full of both prayer and exultation. Then the quartet played "Abide With Me" and slid into a swinging and jovial blues that showed their communication and highlighted the subdued sweetness of Lloyd's playing.
After remarks by Gregory, an old friend of Lloyd, tabla master Zakir Hussain came out. Moran and Rogers left the stage and we were left with the trio that recorded Lloyd's CD, Sangam. Lloyd moved around to the piano and slowly built up an ominous melody while Harland shook a tambourine and other percussion instruments. While this was going on Hussain slowly worked rhythms on his tabla drums. Then as things were going good, Harland shifted to the piano and Lloyd went over to his flute. Eventually Harland would go back to his drum set matching Hussain stroke for stroke while Lloyd also played tarogato and tenor and the three of them worked up to a boiling climax that sounded more Brazilian than Indian.
Following this Hussain left the stage and Moran and Rogers returned bringing with them two Greek musicians, lyre player Sokratis Sinopoulos and singer Maria Farantouri, whom Lloyd has been studying with for the past decade. The ensemble took off again, playing sorrowing but bluesy Greek melodies led by Farantouri's beautiful low voice. Sinopoulis had some intense moments bowing his lyle in tandem with Rogers bowing his bass. Harland and Moran were both animated and Lloyd was amazing, his tenor singing with his poignant cry. There is still an echo of John Coltrane in his sound and it's not hard to imagine that if Coltrane had lived longer and had more of a chance to explore other cultures, he might have wound up making music something like this.
The finish of this brought the audience to their feet and for an encore all eight musicians returned as Farantouri led them in another Greek melody. The drummers, string players and singers all sounded wonderfully together regardless that they were from so many different countries and musical backgrounds. Over it all Lloyd played with that beautiful devotional tone sounding like a benediction.
Before the concert I ran across a horde of high school kids from New York down here on a field trip to participate in some kind of "Mock UN" exercise. I don't know exactly what they had to do but if they wanted to learn about the harmonious blending of cultures, they should have been at the Kennedy Center Friday night.