Written by Walter Ray Watson from NPR
Charles Lloyd has a way of talking that sounds a lot like the notes from his saxophone: full of youthful energy, yet packed with experiences reserved for grownups.
Lloyd’s namedropping comes from a lifetime in the company of celebrated artists. It all started when he was a kid in Memphis, where house guests included Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie.
“My mother had a large house, and there wasn’t an adequate hotel, so these musicians, they would stay,” Lloyd says. “I had so many questions, and they were all very kind to me.
Lloyd’s early fascination with music took him to amateur shows on Beale Street. When he was 7, he won second place as a singer — but that victory, he says, was short lived.
“I was walking down the street in my neighborhood, which was called Orange Mound in those days,” he says. “A girl was approaching me, a little older than myself, and she looked at me and she said,’ You didn’t deserve to win that prize.’ And she was right. I didn’t have the voice for it.”
So he changed course and picked up the saxophone — first an alto and later a tenor.
“That piece of plumbing became my voice,” Lloyd says, “and so all these years I’ve been pursuing that singing sound because I still think of myself as a singer.”
Lloyd’s professional connections with singers go way back, too. He first became friends with The Beach Boys in the 1960s; they recorded and toured together. He includes one of their signature songs, “God Only Knows,” on his latest album, Hagar’s Song.
“It’s a Beach Boys song that I remember Carl Wilson used to sing with a very pure voice, and it touched me very deeply. And I sort of filed that away as something that I wanted to play one day.”
On the album, he plays it with pianist Jason Moran.
“It’s classic Lloyd,” Moran says, laughing, “in that he really steps beautifully through the melody. And I really just follow him as he moves.”
Lloyd’s last record featured the singer Maria Farantouri.
“Maria, when I heard her sing, it moved me so much,” Lloyd says. “There was Billie Holiday right before me when I heard Maria. They’re not singing the same song, but the same heart informs you.”
Lloyd met the Greek singer a decade ago. In 2010, the two played a program of traditional Greek and Byzantine melodies with jazz improvisation. Farantouri says she felt comfortable singing with Lloyd, and together, they began to build a bridge connecting ancient forms with jazz.
“I remember the musicians, they started to smile, dancing with the rhythms,” Farantouri recalls. “And then I think, ‘OK, we can walk over the bridge.’”
Moran says part of Lloyd’s affinity for singers is his understanding of lyrics.
“Oftentimes when we’re on the road,” Moran says, “he is singing while we’re waiting to board a plane. He is singing when we’re checking into a hotel. At sound check, there are these very private videos of him singing into the microphone at the piano. The lyrics — he really takes them to heart when he plays those melodies. And I feel it every time he then decides to put the saxophone to his mouth.”
Lloyd’s connection to the human voice has kept his music distinctive — that, and the 75-year-old musician’s childlike sense of wonder.
“This 9-year-old music lover is still in here, and it informs all I do,” Lloyd says. Maybe a little bit of that 7-year-old singer is still in there, too.