As bed fellows go, traditional Greek music and jazz might have seemed as likely as Mahler and Abba. But then Charles Lloyd, one of jazz’s most revered saxophonists, heard one of Greece’s most cherished contraltos, Maria Farantouri, and she affected him the same way that Billie Holiday had done when he was a boy: what he calls “a heart-shocker”.
It turned out the musical infatuation was mutual. Farantouri, who was a renowned protester against Greece’s hated 1967-74 military dictatorship, had a Charles Lloyd poster on her wall while she was in exile in London. Once introduced the pair swiftly became friends, and Lloyd was awed by the respect in which she was held by her compatriots: “Whenever I’m in Greece and we go out, she’s treated as a deity. I want to stop at the side of the road to buy some cherries or something, and when they see Maria they won’t take money… That doesn’t happen in my country!”
Turning the friendship into a collaboration was a very gradual process. “We would go oftentimes to her place by the sea,” Lloyd says, “and she would sing these ancient Greek laments and Byzantine hymns to me late into the evening. They would move me so, and I would always say, ‘Maria, we have to do some of this.’ And it just gestated over a 10-year period. I was never trying to get her to sing jazz, and I was never was trying to be a Greek musician.”
Born in 1938, Lloyd shot to prominence in 1966 with a group containing the precocious talents of Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette that was among the first jazz bands to be embraced by rock audiences and to sell a million albums.
The success had a downside, however. “I was a young man who was a dreamer, and this thing was moving so fast,” Lloyd recalls. “I would self-medicate, and then I could go out there and face it, and I had ‘tragic magic’ to protect me. But at a certain point with all the self-medication I just hit a wall.”
He disbanded the group and withdrew from performance for a decade, coming out of isolation to expose the astonishingly gifted pianist Michel Petrucciani to the world. After surviving a serious illness in 1986 he became fully active once more, to ongoing acclaim.
Lloyd is almost two generations older than the members of what he calls his “miraculous group” with drummer Eric Harland, bassist Reuben Rogers and pianist Jason Moran. The latter being unavailable for this Australian tour, Farantouri’s pianist, Takis Farazis (who helped devise this Greek Project) joins, alongside virtuoso lyra player Socratis Sinopoulos.
The project continues Lloyd’s long-term penchant for unexpected material. “I’m just trying to expand my palette,” he says. “I’m just a painter, and I’m painting the same painting, I suppose – truth and love – but I keep trying to perfect it… Even now I feel like a kid, because I’m still drunk with the effulgence of the music, and it’s such a blessing in my life.”