Who is Charles Lloyd?
If you were around for the flower-power era, you may remember Lloyd as a firebrand saxophonist who led avant-garde jazz groups in the 1960s, had a crossover hit with the Woodstock crowd, went off to play with the Beach Boys, then burned out and vanished from sight.
If you’re a fan of jazz today, you may know Lloyd for his late-career revival, with a string of emotionally rich, luminously produced recordings on the ECM label, and collaborations with Greek singer Maria Farantouri and tabla master Zakir Hussain.
Lloyd’s trajectory has been unusual in conventional career terms, but for a man who presents himself as something of a spiritual seeker, it’s actually a classic narrative arc: incandescent rise, sharp fall, wandering, renewal, wisdom.
Not that Lloyd, who plays Sanders Theatre Thursday with his New Quartet (with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland), thinks of his journey in such epic terms.
“I don’t know much,” Lloyd says on the phone from his home near Santa Barbara, Calif. “I always have to preface it with that.”
He does not much care for interviews. “I’m pretty much drunk with sound,” he says, and he prefers to express himself through his music.
Nevertheless, a conversation with him proves highly engaging, full of intriguing tangents, and laden with historical detail that Lloyd summons up readily.
Growing up in Memphis, Lloyd studied with the great African-American composer Phineas Newborn (“He was our J.S. Bach”) and played as a teen with Howlin’ Wolf before the great bluesman moved to Chicago. “He personified the blues, those roots,” Lloyd says. “I’d play with him while women were trying to pull his pants down.”
By the late 1950s Lloyd was in Los Angeles with the crowd of young jazz innovators that included Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, and the drummer Billy Higgins, who would become Lloyd’s close collaborator and lifelong friend.
After a stint in Cannonball Adderley’s group, Lloyd formed his own quartet in the mid-’60s. It featured a young Keith Jarrett on piano, along with Cecil McBee on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
Performance footage from the late ’60s shows Lloyd, goateed and Afro-ed, delivering blistering solos (he plays tenor, alto, and flute) that veer from lyricism to fury. The quartet’s 1966 album “Forest Flower” found mass appeal, selling a million copies.
Lloyd reacted to fame by, in essence, dropping out. He played with the Beach Boys in the early ’70s, but in most respects lowered his profile. He was not taking good care of himself.
“I couldn’t handle it, and so I would medicate myself,” he says. “I didn’t know what people wanted, and different folks were coming around.”
“Now,” he says, “I keep to the outskirts of town.”
But Lloyd hasn’t walked away from the past. In his late career, he’s gone deep into real history — his personal history, that of his family and region.
Lloyd’s origins are African-American, Native American, and white. Over the years, he has come to learn about his ancestors. His great-great-grandmother Hagar was born into slavery in Mississippi and removed from her parents when she was 10.
“She was taken to Hardeman County, Tenn., and sold for $300,” Lloyd says. “She was impregnated by the slaveowner at 14. She’s been percolating through me ever since I learned this. I’m grieving.”
That grief is channeled in Lloyd’s brand-new duo album with pianist Moran, “Hagar’s Song,” which centers on a haunting five-part suite in his ancestor’s honor.
It follows the quartet’s 2010 release “Mirror,” which combines standards, spirituals, Lloyd originals, and a spoken meditation by Lloyd on themes of non-attachment and peace.
Moran says that when they work together, the personal material comes out in conversation, but more so in the music.
“He didn’t say, this is where I am coming from,” Moran recalls of the “Hagar’s Song” recordings. “It was improvisations, but I could see where he was coming from.”
A Southerner himself, Moran recognizes in Lloyd the region’s past, its traumas, and the omnipresence of the blues, not always in form but always in spirit.
“You have to put him in his time,” Moran says of Lloyd’s early days. “Musicians were teetering on the edge because America was teetering. I can’t imagine what the country was going through, and musicians were on stage baring their soul. Charles was one of the people trying to find sanctuary elsewhere.”
Moran, by acclamation one of today’s most important artists in jazz, was moved to play with Lloyd after hearing Lloyd’s “Sangam” project, with Hussain and Harland, at a Carnegie Hall show in 2005.
He says Lloyd is a bandleader like no other, gathering the group in a circle, heads touching, to offer a chant before each show. During a recent duo concert, Moran says, Lloyd was overwhelmed by the emotion of the music and broke down in tears.
Lloyd says emotion is the force that drives him. “My heart is always full. I’m always verklempt with something or other. I can’t get off the floor without drooling and rolling around.”
In his quartet, he has found three partners, all roughly half his age, who are understanding and adventurous enough to work with these emotions. Many critics have called the quartet Lloyd’s best group ever.
Lloyd doesn’t disagree. He believes that after Higgins died in 2001, he sent drummer Harland to replace him, “from the other shore.” Moran and Rogers followed.
“You go up to the rooftop for centuries and you call out,” Lloyd says. “You find your people in this life.”