Back in 1968 in my Freshman year at Kent State, when I was basically getting my feet wet in this music we call jazz, I was encouraged by a good friend to check out a concert on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace College in one of Cleveland’s far west side suburbs. The feature was the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and bassist Ron McClure (by that juncture Cecil McBee had split the bass chair). I had heard some buzz from the pop press on this quartet, which was quite unusual for an acoustic jazz quartet at the time. Seems this band was one of a handful of jazz bands booked into Bill Graham’s Filmore venues, East and West, and was one of the few bands that for some reason had been embraced by the psychedelic generation of my peers. Consequently they led something of a “rock star” existence, playing not only the Filmores but also touring the Soviet Union, which was pretty rare for those days. Much of that cache had to do with their breakthrough Monterey Jazz Festival recording of Lloyd’s transcendent piece “Forest Flower” for Atlantic Records. For some reason the psychedelic generation really took to that piece and consequently the Charles Lloyd Quartet became pretty big for an acoustic jazz band, let alone one with a somewhat “free” playing proclivity.
It was a fascinating concert at BW, and though Charles Lloyd was at the time being lumped in the post-Coltrane school of tenor acolytes, his tenor approach was of softer focus than the Trane school; there was an airy, pastoral quality to his tone; and though he could certainly go “out”, there was a somewhat tethered sensibility to his outer limits. And to augment his spirited tenor work Lloyd chose the more avian tones of the flute, rather than the prevailing soprano saxophone doublers rage that gripped so many tenor players in the wake of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” breakthrough. Of equal interest was the sense of connectedness between the writhing, moaning piano man Keith Jarrett – not to mention he was also the rare white guy sporting an afro at the time, and who on first appearance appeared to be black – and the impossibly loose-limbed drummer Jack DeJohnette. Obviously their connection was even deeper than it appeared that afternoon as 18 years later, in 1983, they would come together again through Jarrett’s long and successful relationship with the ECM label as one of the late 20th century and today’s singular small bands; at first referred to as the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, then simply as Jarrett-Peacock-DeJohnette as it became clear that although Jarrett’s name is on the marquee, there’s been a cooperative sensibility within that great trio for many years.
Manfred Eicher must have loved that Charles Lloyd Quartet as well. In the 80s he recorded several of now-NEA Jazz Master Jack DeJohnette’s seminal recordings; likewise Eicher recorded Lloyd’s 90s return to record, a relationship which extends to Charles’ present recorded exploits. Four of those Jack DeJohnette sessions have just been reissued by ECM as a Jack DeJohnette Special Edition box set. Following on the heels of the DeJohnette box is Charles Lloyd Quartets, reprising five of Lloyd’s 90s recordings. Befitting ECM’s tight, simplistically-focused design tradition both sets are the same no-frills white boxes; no bells and whistles (recalling certain extravagant reissue boxes, like the over-designed lucite box number from Herbie Hancock’s vault that is so “cute” one can hardly fit the discs back in the attendant slots), each of these ECM boxes come with sufficiently informative liner and session notes.
While Lloyd’s unit of choice remains the quartet, DeJohnette has exercised a broad range of personnel configurations down through the years. These include the powerful lineup he assembled for his original Special Edition release: David Murray and Arthur Blythe on saxophones were at the time a kind of California expat sax dream team, having each made big impacts on the scene when they arrived in New York in the late 1970s. Bassist Peter Warren rounded out this exceptional piano-less cast. (At that Lloyd quartet sighting in ’68, little did I know at the time that DeJohnette was also a gifted keyboard player. In an interview last winter Billy Hart told me how surprised he was to see Jack playing drums when DeJohnette got to New York; he’d seen him around Chicago playing piano and organ! Small wonder that DeJohnette is one of our most supremely musical drummers.) to Coltrane is payed via John’s tunes “Central Park West” and “India,” however the key to this recording is DeJohnette’s “Zoot Suite.” Tin Can Alley casted Jack’s fellow Chicagoan Chico Freeman and John Purcell on reeds and flutes, plus the sturdy Warren. Jack’s extended ballad “Pastel Rhapsody”, with its lovely harmonies and DeJohnette’s overdubbed piano (or were the drums overdubbed?). But don’t sleep the raucous, bump & grind blues “I Know,” with Jack signifying vocally. Inflation Blues reprises the twin reeds of Freeman and Purcell, adding the free-leaning trumpet of St. Louis’ Baikida Carroll and Jack’s Chicago homeboy Rufus Reid on acoustic bass, plus a rare Rufus hearing on bass guitar. From this session Jack’s piece “Ebony” always struck me as something that might have been the hippest evening news intro tune had someone had big enough ears to so adapt it. Album Album closes out the box. Remember the lovely, woodsy shot of Jack’s family that graced the original Lp version? A couple of years ago when I met Jack’s youngest daughter Minya at the Panama Jazz Festival I reminded her of that cover shot, which pictured her in the position of precocious child; (she’s now married to Jack’s sound technician Ben Surman, son of saxophonist and frequent DeJohnette collaborator John Surman) she grinned and blushed at the memory of that apparent childhood embarrassment. From that session comes two of Jack’s more indelible compositions, “Ahmad The Terrible,” his homage to Ahmad Jamal, and “Zoot Suite.” Tuba and baritone saxman Howard Johnson lends additional bottom to the Purcell-Murray-Reid lineup in the ensemble. And if you can find it, get the Lp; besides the very warm front & back cover DeJohnette family photo treatment (doubtless standing in the Woodstock forest), this rare ECM gatefold package contains a priceless DeJohnette and sidemen black & white family photo montage inside (including Johnson in his Massilon High School marching band uniform and Murray as a schoolboy high jumper).
Meanwhile Lloyd’s ECM affiliation is ongoing, including brilliant documentations of his deep relationships with subsequent pianists Brad Mehldau, Geri Allen, and currently Jason Moran (including their most recent ECM duo session Hagar’s Song). The Charles Lloyd box contains his five ECM releases spanning 1990-97: Fish Out of Water, Notes from Big Sur (an obvious homage to the idyllic, fairly isolated life he and wife Dorothy Darr carved out in that “God’s country” sector of the California coastline), The Call, All My Relations, and Canto. Though many writers have remarked substantively on the key role of pianists in Lloyd’s music, from the salad days with Jarrett to his 80s reawakening by the late Michel Petrucciani, to Mehldau, Allen and his current piano mate Moran, recalling his Quartet days with DeJohnette, Charles Lloyd has long had a thirst for resourceful, challenging drummers who push his artistry to great limits. After DeJohnette came Sunship Theus, Jon Christenson, Billy Higgins (the latter two being more about texture than explosion), Ralph Peterson, and for three of the dates in this box the broad artistry of Billy Hart. Currently Lloyd is further challenged by Moran’s Houston homie, the crafty and propulsive Eric Harland.