The man who walked out onto the stage of the Neurosciences Institute, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, on Sunday April 30 might have been an eccentric inventor.
He was dressed in a cheap-looking coat, round eyeglasses and some strange black skullcap that had two vestigial horns: one forward and one aft. Wild gray hair showed beneath the headgear. But by the end of the evening this consummate showman had gathered these La Jolla concertgoers under his spell, paid respect to some of his fallen comrades and, ultimately, led a celebration of life itself.
"Charles Lloyd is truly one of the great original voices in jazz and it is a pleasure to have him back again," Daniel Atkinson said in his introduction as program director of the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, under whose auspices the concert was organized.
The band laid out its stall during the opening numbers, "When Miss Jessye Sings" and "God Give Me Strength." Lloyd (tenor sax), John Abercrombie (guitar), Darek Oles (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums) seemed to be exploring a meditative vibe although a passionate momentum began to develop during "Voice in the Night" and "Dorothea's Studio" before the interval.
Lloyd removed the overcoat during the first of these, strolled upstage to put it away, sat down on a high stool, between the bass and the drum kit, while nodding along to the cerebral guitar solos played by Abercrombie who, at stage left, was squinting ferociously at his music stand.
This was Lloyd the legend: whose "Forest Flower: Live at Monterey" was the first jazz recording to sell a million copies ‹ in 1966 when jazz was taking a hammering from Rock 'n' roll. Lloyd the mystic: who walked away from the pinnacle of his international success in the 1970s to spend the best part of two decades in meditative retreat at Big Sur. Lloyd the survivor: who fought his way back from near fatal illness in 1986 to rededicate himself to musical performance.
Whenever he got up to play, he appeared possessed by the saxophone. Lloyd at the edge of the stage, making sounds of a robust sophistication in apparent contradiction to the appearance of the 62-year-old man behind the instrument. Its power seemed to draw up his right leg like the phantom salute of Stanley Kubrick's fictional Dr. Strangelove except, jazz being the opposite of Nazism, it manifested below the waist. Sometimes it was the left leg. Sometimes straight: sometimes bent. Sometimes high as a goose step, sometimes bent almost to a backward kick.
Twice in the evening Lloyd put down the sax for a pair of maracas. Elbows bent at right angles he shook them on a plane with his ears, utterly immersed in the rhythm.
An attractive woman in the front row who was watching Lloyd through the a tripod-mounted video camera is his wife, Dorothy Darr, the photographer-artist-filmmaker who creates his CD covers and whose movie about Charles Lloyd and his music, "Memphis is in Egypt," was released in 1996.
Lloyd opened the second half of the evening with a swinging unaccompanied hard bop sax solo. Then Abercrombie impressed when the turn came for his guitar to take it further. Higgins, a grinning youth aged 64, gave a virtuoso performance on the drums that seemed to prove every rhythm to be a game, and that he is master of them all.
A rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" was evidence that the smoother, more lyrical quality of Lloyd's technique must not be missed.
Afterwards Lloyd was moved to say a few words in Strayhorn's memory. "We're just passing through. You can't build a house on a bridge. It's birth and death. Birth and death."
Reminiscing about trumpet player Booker Little, he said, "When Clifford Brown died he (Little) said, 'Why couldn't it have been me?'
"When I first came to this work I wanted to jump into the fast lane. And Booker said, 'No, You've got to have quality of character.' It still haunts me how beautiful Booker was."
Then Lloyd picked up his enormous Haines alto flute and played the hauntingly beautiful "Little Peace" (written for Booker Little who died of kidney failure in 1961, aged 23).
Apparently with no effort at all Lloyd made full use of the instrument's range from the velvet tones to the fluttery notes but he played it strongly and with a swing to it.
As the rest of the quartet joined in, it was clear that each played totally from the heart. A saturnine Abercrombie strode up and down, powering through a complex solo full of technical flourishes before giving way to Oles' bass.
An updated arrangement of "Forest Flower" at this point in the evening just blew everybody away. But, just as quickly, the mood was transformed to comedy as guitar and sax improvisers morphed a swinging "Sunshine Superman" into "Dancing Cheek to Cheek." The carnival rhythm brought back the audience from the weepies as Lloyd played chorus after chorus.
The quartet left the stage to a standing ovation before Higgins returned carrying a drum and Lloyd picked up his oboe to play an encore in the Brazilian tradition that continued as they marched offstage and disappeared backstage by the visibly moved audience which began to leave the auditorium.
The Athenaeum's summer series of four jazz concerts will commence at 7:30 p.m. on July 1 when the Ralph Moore Quartet will play at 1008 Wall Street, La Jolla. Admission for the whole series is $56 for members and $64 non-members. Individual concerts $15/$17. Call 858-454-5872 for reservations.