Ever since the bebop revolution of the 1940s, jazz musicians have tended to see songs in terms of possibility. They would look not at the melody but the harmony beneath, and tried to imagine the infinite new melodies that could be extrapolated from those chords. That's why many jazz combos spend so little time playing the melody - they're anxious to get to the good stuff.
Charles Lloyd (who performs at the Baltimore Museum of Art tomorrow) takes rather a different approach on his latest recording, "The Water Is Wide." For instance, when he and his group perform the old Hoagie Carmichael standard, "Georgia," Lloyd lavishes attention on the melody, almost seeming to sing it as the warm, breathy tone of his tenor saxophone illuminates even the subtlest twists of the verse and chorus.
"I was always, frankly, moved by Ray Charles' version, and how haunting and deeply soulful it was," he says. Lloyd tried to bring that quality to his recording, but within a different context. What he wanted was "the juxtaposition of 'singing' it very simply, but with players who could come to serve the music with a level of clarity and depth," he says. "You may think I'm just playing the melody, but there's something about nuance in there, about living it."
It's not the easiest aesthetic to explain, Lloyd admits. "I don't know how to speak about it," he says. "It's like you bring your whole life experience to the moment ... I was trying to make some tone poems to touch the higher place in our being."
If Lloyd's description sounds a bit mystical, that's because he made an effort to emphasize the spiritual within his music for this album. In particular, he was hoping to unlock the magic of simplicity in his playing.
"As a young man, I thought I knew a lot of stuff, and now I'm finding that I don't know very much," he says with a self-deprecating laugh. "And I'm knowing less all the time."
In his days as a young lion, Lloyd was one of the most ferociously gifted saxophonists in jazz. After making his name with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the early '60s, Lloyd eventually formed his own quartet, working at first with guitarist Gabor Szabo, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, then later with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Although Lloyd's groups took on the free-spirited look of the hippie era, the music they made was complex and questing, running parallel to the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
Lloyd, now 61, dropped out of music for a while, and didn't return until the mid-'80s. Although his later recordings have been in much the same vein as his '60s albums, he wanted to take a totally different approach with "The Water Is Wide."
"I wanted to have a big simplicity, with depth," he says. "I wanted the wisdom of the ancients to come through, with the combination of modernity."
He worked for a long time on the project. First, there was a period of preparation, during which he would play and replay the songs, meditating on their essence. Then, there was matter of finding a time to record that fit the schedule of the musicians he wanted to work with. "It took a year to get the schedule together for us all to meet and to record," he says, then laughs. "You probably won't hear the band that you hear on this record ever play together in concert."
Fortunately, he was able to get three-fifths of the group together for his tour. Although pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier are too busy with their own trio, Lloyd has managed to get guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Billy Higgins to join him on the road. (Bassist Marc Johnson rounds out the touring ensemble).
Lloyd is extremely happy with this band, in large part because they have so much experience in common. "I've been playing with master Higgins since I was 19," he says. "And Abercrombie was influenced by a recording I made many years ago, 'Of Course, Of Course,' with Gabor Szabo, the Hungarian guitarist. So we all have affinities."
Best of all, they all have insight into what Lloyd is trying to attain. "You see, I'm interested in getting to the distillation of the essence of whatever I'm working with now," he says. "I just love creativity and the openness of the music."
For information on the BMA show call 410-783-8000.