The veteran saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd headlines the Chicago Jazz Festival tonight in a performance with his malleable trio of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, with special guest guitarist Bill Frisell. For several decades Lloyd has been a model of measured seeking, using music to reach for the same sort of spiritual fulfillment as his onetime influence John Coltrane. I know that some folks find the reedist a bit too controlled and, indeed, there have been times when I wish he’d bring more fire to his playing, but once the listener recalibrates expectations to Lloyd’s meticulous, thoughtful standards, there’s no missing the music’s quiet intensity.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Lloyd was once not only one of jazz’s most popular artists, but he achieved mainstream stardom back in the 60s. His 1966 album, Forest Flower (Atlantic)—cut with the powerhouse quartet of drummer Jack DeJohnette (who gave a remarkable performance last night in Millennium Park), pianist Keith Jarrett, and bassist Cecil McBee, all musicians largely introduced to the world by Lloyd—was a platinum seller, and he was a frequent draw at rock venues like the legendary Fillmore West. Three years later, in 1969, Lloyd dropped out of the jazz biz, retreating to a home in Big Sur, where he practiced meditation and studied Eastern spirituality. He played a bit in the early 80s with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani, but it wasn’t until 1989 that Lloyd returned to music full-time, adapting the heightened restraint dominant in his music ever since. Earlier this year ECM Records released a handy, rewarding five-CD box called Quartets, which collects the first five albums he made after his comeback, each of them featuring the remarkable Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson.

Fish Out of Water, from 1989, signaled the new Lloyd sound and was made with a European band—Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen. It’s hard not to see that European sensibility—less blues-driven, more contemplative and rooted in classical tradition—rubbing off on Lloyd or leading him to work with these Scandinavian practitioners of that sound. That record, marked by a subtle stretching of time, elegantly distended melody, and rich harmonies, set the tone for everything he’d do with Stenson over the next seven years. For his second ECM album, Notes From Big Sur, Swedish bassist Anders Jormin took over for Danielsson and the powerhouse Philadelphia drummer Ralph Peterson replaced Christensen, adding tension with his post-Art Blakey drive. The final three albums—All My Relations, The Call, and Canto—feature the more sympathetic Billy Hart on the drum throne. Below you can hear “Nocturne” from The Call, a piece that gorgeously defines Lloyd’s approach during this period.


By the late 90s Lloyd was working primarily with younger American musicians—pianists like Geri Allen, Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran, bassists Larry Grenadier and Rogers, and drummer Harland—a practice that’s continued to this day (he also worked often with peer and drummer Billy Higgins and continues to collaborate with the great Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain). Canto was the most fiery of those early ECM recordings, and there has been a bit more edge in his playing since, especially through his work with Moran, who has a gift for inspiring collaborators, but Lloyd’s contemplative, surface calm is a sound that he developed and has been refining for over two decades now, and within that limpid approach he endlessly locates new wrinkles.

Today’s playlist:

Mastodon, The Hunter (Reprise)
Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocarlia, Balkan Brass Battle (Asphalt Tango)
Anthony Braxton, Quartet (Mestre) 2008 (Caligola)
Maria Rita, Elo (Warner Music Latina)
Julia Hülsmann Trio, Imprint (ECM)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.