Monday, September 7, 2015

Josef Woodard, Charles Lloyd, A Wild, Blatant Truth

Anyone who grew up when I did and was musically aware will know the name of Charles Lloyd, and no doubt his music as well. Many who who came to the planet later may also know and appreciate him, but there was a time when Lloyd the masterful tenor saxophonist and his quartet were on the very top of the world. His name was on the lips of the hippie-hipster cognoscenti, as the first jazz artist to capture wholeheartedly the allegiance of the young, flowering boomer audience. His recordings sold in the millions, he played the Fillmore East and West (before Miles did), he was a kind of guru to the young and their quest for an alternative life. This was in the later '60s. Then just as quickly he burned out, disappeared from the scene, and lived in self-imposed exile on the coast of California for years, a hermit-sage.

He never quite disappeared from sight but it wasn't really until the '80s that he seriously reconnected on the jazz scene and brought his music forward. From then on he remade himself as an artist, regained his light in the jazz firmament. His music evolved and flourished again. In many ways there he is still, a wise elder, now an octogenarian.

And now all those complex developments in his life are mapped out in a very first biography by Josef Woodard, Charles Lloyd, A Wild, Blatant Truth (Silman-James Press, 229 pp., paper, $18.95).

Josef is a talented jazz journalist who partly by virtue of his Santa Barbara home base got to know Charles rather well and in the course of many years interviewed him numerous times. The reviews were centered around promotional moments in Charles career and in part have a self-promotional slant, which reveals something of two constrasting Lloyds, the public figure and the recluse. So it is never a mere recounting. It is from this lengthy and invaluable documentation that Woodard has woven together the biography at hand. He fleshes out the narrative with additional connecting details, commentary and other interviews, so that there is a biographical continuity in place as the main story thread.

The end result is a narrative that primarily tells the tale of Lloyd's life in his own words. Since the original intent of the reviews were about in-the-moment concerns, projects, group tours and single appearances, new albums and such, and not primarily as an a-to-b recounting, there are a number of alternative flows to the book. For example we get a good deal of Lloyd's view of his inner growth on a spiritual, consciousness-raising level. And this is partly a key to Lloyd. As a musical-spiritual being he has traveled a long and at times difficult road. All that is wrapped up in his presentation of self-to-world, and his presentation of world-to-self, too.

Because each interview segment was a slice in a moment of Charles life, we get repetitions with variations of how Charles felt about parts of his life story. So there are times when the book reads as a series of reflections of Lloyd's view of himself over time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is in that way not an entirely conventional narrative. Charles has a way of speaking that, as the author notes, goes forward in circles, with digressions on the past, reminiscences and spiritual thoughts, then finally a return to the present. And so as you proceed forward in the chronology you also look backward repeatedly, and in part see how the perspective changes somewhat as Lloyd goes through his life in time.

Charles is a complicated personality who, perhaps like many of us, has conflicting feelings and needs--the need to create great jazz in front of an attentive audience, to be gregarious and outgoing, but also the need to retreat from what he calls "the tollbooth," the business of it all and its distractions, the modern contemporary pursuit of mammon-like gain that is so much a part of our world, the potentially self-destructive lifestyle of gigging.

It is a tribute to Woodard's openness to the complex persona of Lloyd that he repeatedly got Charles to open up to him over the years. And so this is a story of the inner narrative of Lloyd in his quest for spirituality and musical growth as much as it is a story of learning to master a personal approach to the art of jazz, the associations, the groupings, the interactions with fellow musicians, record labels and audiences, his reception and reputation over a very long period of time.

This perhaps will never be the definitive Charles Lloyd biography because of how it is made up. It is nevertheless a kind of definitive look at how Charles has reacted to his life events and how his inner-self has been a critical, perhaps the critical factor in the directions his life has taken. So for all that it is a fascinating and absorbing read. By its very nature it is a critical source document for Lloyd's own vision of his life and in part how some of his fellow musical travelers have seen him.

For the painstakingly detailed blow-by-blow narrative of a definitive biography it is an excellent first start, but is not primarily that. And as such it gives the reader an excellent introduction to the development of his musical style over time, a guide to his recorded output, a chronology of his Memphis beginnings, his initial rise to prominence and the subsequent re-thinkings he underwent to get back to the music.

Most certainly after reading A Wild, Blatant Truth you will feel like you know Charles Lloyd and what kind of man he is and has been. You will no doubt appreciate his music more fully, too. For all that it is an important read. Highly recommended.

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