Jazz: Searching for that perfect sound

Of all the stars appearing at this year's Oris London Jazz Festival, which begins today, no one rivals the enigma of the American saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Phil Johnson meets the crown prince of hippie jazz in his elegant California condo.

If his name isn't familiar, that's because Charles Lloyd more or less retired from playing in public in 1969 and spent much of the next 20 years cultivating his garden - both literally and metaphorically - in California's Big Sur. He re-emerged briefly in the early 1980s, when the then unknown French pianist Michel Petrucciani sought him out, and later, after a life-threatening emergency operation in 1986, Lloyd, now 59, started to record again. Over the past few years he has produced a brilliant series of five albums for the German company ECM, with the same European quartet that will accompany him in London.

It's easy, though, to forget just how much of a star Lloyd once was. In the late Sixties, his quartet - which featured pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette - became the most popular jazz group ever, performing at Bill Graham's Fillmore in San Francisco alongside psychedelic light-shows, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. Their album Forest Flower, recorded at the Monterey Festival in 1966, was a big hit and Lloyd became the crown prince of hippie-jazz, his out-size Afro and silken robes representing the acceptable face of improvisation in an era when jazz was badly out of fashion. The Beatles attended his concert, he was profiled by Time and Harper's Bazaar and he toured Europe to huge acclaim, becoming the first American jazz act to play at a Soviet festival. Ten days before the Russian tanks moved in, the Lloyd quartet played Prague.

Now Lloyd lives in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, where I visited him last week, at the beach-side condo where he has a studio. Here he practises his sax and swims underwater to perfect his breath control. He also collects classic furniture. When I recognise the two Charles Eames armchairs that decorate the small flat, he's flattered. "You're hip to furniture?" he says. "Man, I've got to show you the house!" He drives me in his Mercedes up the hill to where his wife, the artist Dorothy Darr, has designed their new home, which is, well, awesome. A French architect is supervising the laying of a rustic limestone floor; ancient Peruvian doors - displaced by an earthquake - have been inserted into new enclosures, and a crane has been used to plant mature palm trees in the Alhambra-like courtyard. Lloyd takes a detour to show me the Hindu temple built by the Vedanta sect nearby, and flashes a fancy sign to the nun praying there. The Theosophist's guru Krishnamurti settled in nearby Ojai, and Lloyd is very, very, spiritual.

Lloyd walks me through the site, pointing out the furniture stored in the garage. There are more Eames armchairs, a sofa and a bed, and a stack of the designer's plywood chairs, alongside several Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs and sofas and a pair of Marcel Breuer's Wassily armchairs, alongside much else. "My aesthetic goes to that Modernism thing," Lloyd says. "I started buying years ago and this woman in a showroom in San Francisco in the Sixties, she pulled my coat, you know? I asked how much something was and she said, `It's all relative young man, come back when you're rich.' "

As befits a southerner from Memphis, Lloyd has impeccably courtly manners. His appearance is extraordinary too, a mixed heritage of African, Mongolian, Cherokee and Irish ancestry emphasising the many shades of grey that divide black and white. As a youngster in Memphis, he played blues with BB King, Bobby Bland and Howlin' Wolf before leaving to study music at the University of Southern California, and then moving to New York, where he joined the bands of Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. After forming his quartet and experiencing their success, he decided to quit, he says, because of grief. "It was a time in my life when my mother had just died and some of my friends had died. My closest friend in high school, Booker Little (the trumpeter), had died when he was 23, and that weighed on me. I felt that I wanted to know what was behind all this and I had this spiritual quest that was calling me so I just got off the bus. I was living in the fast lane too - you know what I'm saying? - and I just felt the need for solitude. The business came to me and said, `Well, now we want to put you in arenas,' but I wanted to follow my inner muse. I didn't want to be soap powder."

According to the writer Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett, there were also disagreements over money when the other members of the quartet found out just how much Lloyd was making from their lucrative college gigs, and how little of it he was passing on to them. Who knows, but maybe Charles was spending it on furniture. "I went away into retreat," Lloyd says, "and Dorothy built a lovely Japanese country house in Big Sur, and I continued to play but not in public."

Ever since, he has dedicated himself, above all else, to his sound. "If you haven't got a beautiful sound you can forget the other shit," he says. "That's number one. I obviously have all these heroes and people always say Coltrane but they miss the tenderness of Lady Day (Billie Holiday) and Pres (Lester Young), and all this other stuff." Billie Holiday - whose portrait can be glimpsed on the sleeve of his latest album - is Lloyd's most abiding obsession. "I hear it like she's singing beyond earthly beauty or romantic love," he says. "For me, she's in prayer, that tenderness and lyricism and shit. My whole thing is about sound and I'm hoping that one day I'll be able to make a sound that says it all, and I can just put that fellow back in his case and go walking up in the mountains!"

Charles Lloyd and his quartet play the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4201) in a double-bill with McCoy Tyner and his trio on Monday.

Lloyd's latest album, `Canto', is out on ECM

The essential Charles Lloyd 1938: born, Memphis, Tennessee 1956: played alto sax in bands led by BB King and Bobby Bland 1961-64: switched to tenor sax and joined Chico Hamilton's group 1964-65: played with Cannonball Adderley 1965: first quartet, recorded Discovery (Columbia) 1966: quartet with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Cecil McBee. Dream Weaver, Live at Antibes, Forest Flower, In Europe (all for Atlantic) 1967: Live at the Fillmore (Atlantic) 1971: Waves (A&M), with fellow TM enthusiasts the Beach Boys 1982: Montreux '82 (Elektra Musician) with Michel Petrucciani 1989: Fish Out of Water (ECM), with European quartet 1997: Canto (ECM). The latest and best of five ECM albums

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