By Don Heckman
Charles Lloyd made one of his rare Southland appearances Saturday night a Royce Hall in a CAP UCLA (Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA) concert. And, as often happens with the iconic jazz saxophonist and flutist, one couldn’t help but wish that Lloyd would leave his Santa Barbara home for more frequent local appearances.
Every Lloyd concert is unique. And this one, with special guests Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, was a striking display of contemporary jazz improvisation at its finest.
Barely a word was spoken from the stage during the entire 90 minute set (followed by a generous encore of several songs). Instead, Lloyd, with guitarist Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and steel guitarist Leisz simply moved smoothly from one piece into another. Some were based on familiar source material – including at one point an unlikely passage from “Abide with Me” to “Red River Valley,” no doubt inspired by Frisell’s America interests. Other selections tapped into everything from Lloyd originals to traditional tunes and pieces by Gabor Szbo and Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” (from West Story).
Lloyd is a fascinating performer to watch. Slender and lithe, his movements were intimately related to the flow of the music, whether he was playing or not. When he dug into an especially mobile improvisational passage of his own, he became more involved with the music, lifting one leg after the other in his own unique dance moves.
Since the mid-sixties and the unexpected success of his live performance of “Forest Flower” Lloyd’s career has embraced everything from avant-garde jazz to some intriguing episodes with the Beach Boys. Over the course of the past four or five decades, he has firmly established himself as one of the most musically independent jazz artists of his generation. And, in this memorable performance, his inventive playing offered convincing evidence of his still vital, still imaginative skills.
But the performance offered more, its numerous fascinations triggered primarily by the continuing interaction between Lloyd and Frisell, supported the sturdy rhythm work of Rogers and Harland, as well as the dark, roving steel guitar work of Leisz. At the heart of it all, each of the players tailored their individual musical explorations to a non-stop musical journey shared by everyone, on stage and in the audience. The results illuminated the essence of collective jazz improvising at its finest.
And it was Frisell who – in a conversation with the UCLA Daily Bruin – best described the essence of the interplay between the musicians:
“On stage with (Lloyd),” said Frisell, “there is no competition. There are no worries, no mistakes, no rights or wrongs….When you’ve been playing your whole life, you don’t need to talk about (music) in that way. I feel at home when I’m on stage with Charles Lloyd.”
By the end of the Lloyd quintet’s performance, it’s a fair bet to say that most members of the responsive Royce Hall audience also felt very much “at home” with every note played by Lloyd and his gifted musical associates.