Nearing his 80th birthday in March 2018, the tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd wanted to commemorate the occasion by revisiting old music with a new band, mixing longtime collaborators and first-timers. He recorded 12 pieces over two hours in a live performance on the night of his birthday, at the Lobero Theater in his hometown, Santa Barbara, Calif., and it has now been turned into an enchanting new album, “8: Kindred Spirits (Live at the Lobero).”
The personnel tells its own story; it hints at Mr. Lloyd’s willful urge to subvert while also making sense of things, to prove something about the oneness of the world. Both the oldest and the youngest of the five side musicians are new to his orbit: the organist Booker T. Jones, now 75 — a fellow Memphis native who, like Mr. Lloyd, went on to become a crossover star — and the guitarist Julian Lage, 32. They join the bassist Rueben Rogers, the drummer Eric Harland and the pianist Gerald Clayton, all members of Mr. Lloyd’s other ensembles. (Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, also played bass on two tunes.)
In the late 1960s, when he became a popular sensation, Mr. Lloyd was among the few who saw jazz’s popular decline and rock ’n’ roll’s ascent not as conflicting forces, but as waves already in flow together. The bands of Cannonball Adderley and Chico Hamilton, in which he got his start, were good places to explore this kind of thinking. So was California, where he moved at the end of the decade, by which point he was already in touch with the hippie movement.
He proved adept at allaying questions of style while basically avoiding the conversation entirely, so he never came to symbolize any particular turn. The most obvious way to group him would be in a jazz-rock fusion conversation (he had a band with Mike Love, you know), but even that never made enough sense to stick. If his tunes can sometimes feel like a species of their own, it’s because they so confidently allow you to feel the blues while hearing jazz and listening like you would to pop music.
“8: Kindred Spirits,” named in reference to Mr. Lloyd’s eight decades on Earth, begins with a 20-minute journey through “Dream Weaver,” his crossover hit from the mid-1960s. For the first five minutes, the band plays the equivalent of an abstract overture, throwing sounds around — Mr. Clayton’s jangling ostinatos; Mr. Lage’s bright, streaky lines; Mr. Lloyd’s restless, wriggling tenor — without coming together.
At 5:00, with the band cooling to a simmer, Mr. Lloyd repeats a low, downward phrase three times, pulling the curtain down. The sounds have almost died out when he raises himself up to puff out the opening phrase of “Dream Weaver”: a simple, singsong melody, all about rhythm and tone. The band falls in behind him, grooving now, but the feeling of scattered friction that it established in the overture still reigns.
When you approach rhythm and feel sideways, as Mr. Lloyd does, it presents a dilemma for everyone else. Should a drummer offer a sturdy baseline underneath him, or would it be wiser to match the leader’s protean improvising with a dance of cymbal flutters and toms? Maybe there’s a third way: wrap and wriggle around him; keep the beat strong but still responsive; follow the elusive spirit of Mr. Lloyd’s playing without trying to mirror it.
Mr. Harland has become a master at this. He has patter and stutter and groove all tied together in his drumming, and he shares Mr. Lloyd’s relationship to rhythm: always ahead, never rushing. It serves him well even on Mr. Jones’s composition “Green Onions,” which gets a blissful Lloydification here.
Mr. Lloyd has talked about identifying with his star sign (Pisces), and the importance of waterways to his life. When you hear him, you get it: His saxophone is too light to feel like a solid substance, but too graspable to be vapor. It’s liquid, fast-moving and rerouting. Into it he mixes the soul-opening honk of Albert Ayler, full of enough breath to evoke a door blowing wide open; the winding intensity of John Coltrane; and the troubled placidity of Lester Young. And somehow, he never seems to need any more volume than Young did to get his point across. That point being that it’s all wide open, one thing a part of the next, and it all continues.
“8: Kindred Spirits (Live from The Lobero)”