His just-released album "Mirror" contains numerous moments of profound spiritual quietude, but saxophonist Charles Lloyd likens his approach to a John Deere.
"I have a tractor sound," he said by phone from his California studio, where he was practicing for a tour that will take him and his New Quartet to Minneapolis Thursday.
That's not the way anyone charmed by Lloyd's dulcet tonality might define his sound. But as a youth, "I heard Billie Holiday and wanted to marry her, she touched me so directly," he explained. "I didn't have the voice to be a singer [like Holiday], but I realized that the saxophone was my voice."
To refine that voice, he gravitated to vintage Conn saxophones, popular in the 1920s and '30s. "I don't recommend them to others who want to fly Ferraris," he said. "Most [saxophonists] play Selmer, which are better mechanically, but those golden chariots get in the way of my sound, my voice."
And like a tractor, Lloyd's playing moves directly and steadily through the pain, resistance and distractions of life toward a better, more peaceable, place.
"My sound is soft, but I play these very stiff reeds," he said. "I like the resistance. It is a contradiction."
Yin and yang
That is the way Lloyd, who turned 72 last March, has forged one of the more dynamic and idiosyncratic careers in jazz history. He came to prominence in the late 1960s, when jazz was being usurped by acid rock. With a quartet that included such future stars as pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, he played intense, spellbinding music that embraced the ruckus without losing creative integrity, capturing the kids on such albums as "Forest Flower," "Dream Weaver" and "Love-In."
Then, for about a dozen years, he abruptly dropped out, studying Eastern religions and intermittently releasing "mood music."
"For years I lived a life of deep quietude, but I have also lived a life of hyperactivity and tragic magic," he said. Since his return to the scene nearly 30 years ago, he has honed his yin-and-yang sound, so that his intensity simmers instead of bellows, and his placidity contains an undercurrent that stirs with the wisdom of spiritual discipline, the patient strife of a tractor in the fields.
Which brings us back to "Mirror," released this month. The ambience and the material -- a collection of Lloyd originals, a few spirituals such as "Go Down Moses" and "The Water Is Wide," and a smattering of cover tunes (by Thelonious Monk and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson) -- are similar to two other landmark Lloyd albums: 2000's "The Water Is Wide," a joint project with his dying friend, drummer Billy Higgins, and 2002's "Lift Every Voice," a response to the 9/11 tragedy.
The thread that connects them is "the need and the call for some tenderness," said Lloyd. But what really elevates "Mirror" is the exquisite synergy of his latest quartet, which might be the best working ensemble of his long career.
'A flock of pigeons'
When Lloyd heard drummer Eric Harland playing in New York's Village Vanguard eight years ago, he was convinced that Higgins had sent him as a replacement. Harland in turn recommended bassist Reuben Rogers and pianist Jason Moran. All are first-call musicians, but Moran -- a headliner in his own right -- said he and the rest of the quartet will always make time to play with Lloyd.
"Once we arrived in his group we learned things about lyrics, songs, meditations, spirituality -- things we have all been yearning for in other working situations," he said by phone last week. "I think everybody knows this is a place to stay."
Of their interplay, Moran said: "We are like a flock of pigeons who can change directions quickly, with Charles as the homing pigeon. Eric, Reuben and I are of the same generation, so we have the same attitudes about rhythm and about Charles. When we cover a Beach Boys song from 40 years ago ['Caroline, No'] it will be different to us than it is to Charles. When we play 'Lift Every Voice,' our notion of freedom is probably from a different context than it is to Charles."
Indeed, Lloyd's response to that song, and some of the other "Negro spirituals" in the quartet's set list, indicates why the music can be simultaneously full of quietude and intensity, spiritually lofty, and as tangible as a tractor.
"I have two natures," Lloyd said. "One that is quiet and one that will reach out and communicate with you. With the spirituals we play, I grew up in the South and I saw all the corruption, and in the macro it still goes on, no matter where you are. For all my quietude I am still a tender warrior -- I will not bend down and pick up soap. I have lived long enough to know that."