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Charles Lloyd, giant of jazz ; He brings his signature saxophone and New Quartet with him today for Art of Jazz concert at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Charles Lloyd is bedeviled By paradox.

Talk to him on the phone for an hour and he will somehow tell you "words are not my thing." And yet, like so many artists who don't like being interviewed, he is both voluble and mesmerizing when he finally relents -- poet, storyteller, shaman.

Lloyd is among the small handful of towering jazz saxophonists. Certainly, his quartet appearance today with pianist Jason Moran in the Art of Jazz series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is the greatest Buffalo jazz event since Cecil Taylor's solo concert in Babeville and Herbie Hancock's in the Rock the Harbor series last summer.

And yet his is not a name frequently bandied about By those talking about great living jazz saxophone masters, like Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman with whom he jammed during the era when he replaced Eric Dolphy in the legendary band of Chico Hamilton .

It is to Lloyd's legendary first traveling unit that we owe jazz musicians who are today's reigning giants on their instruments, pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Talk to Charles Lloyd for an hour and names tumble forth with no self-consciousness or calculation: actor Burgess Meredith, his neighbor in Malibu; poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Charles Bukowski, who'd get him to accompany their readings during the 12 years 1969-1981 when he was semiretired and in "retreat."

Then there was Bob Dylan, whom he'd visit in Woodstock, where he told him he was moving to California, only to hear Dylan's retort, as he tells it: " 'Why do you want to do that? The place is going to fall into the sea.' And then one day, I was looking out at the beach from my yard. And I see The Band out there taking pictures for an album cover. I said, 'What are you doing out here?' And they said 'We all came out with Bob.' He'd moved out [to California]."

Anyone inclined to dismiss Lloyd, 72, as a rambling '60s countercultural, adrift on a steamer trunk full of non-Western holy books has never heard his gripping tale of how he broke a longtime habit and didn't stay at the Marriott next to the World Trade Center when in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. He wanted to be closer to the village club where he was performing, despite the omnipresence in that neighborhood of jackhammers. Who could doubt that he'd been favored By SOMETHING?

>The piano players

Collaborating with pianists has been key to his professional life since the great jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. took Lloyd under his wing when Lloyd was a boy in Memphis.

Here is what he now says about playing with Keith Jarrett: "When you hear that majesty every night and that brilliance -- walking the high wire and walking on the water, too -- nothing compares." They got together when Lloyd was playing in Cannonball Adderly's hugely popular "soul jazz" band.

"Keith was going to school -- the Berklee School of Music. We were playing a room called the Jazz Workshop, in '64, if I'm not mistaken. In the upstairs lounge, Keith was playing with a singer. He tells it differently -- that he was playing with his trio.

"It was like listening to master Phineas [Newborn] that first time. I heard it. He had the elixirs. And I could tell that he was blessed.

"He would run downstairs during HIS intermissions and hear me with Cannonball. And I'd come up to hear him. We had an attraction to each other's music."

When Lloyd finally went out on his own in a quartet with drummer Pete LaRoca and guitarist Gabor Szabo, "I got a call from Keith. He'd found me somewhere on the road. He was playing with [Art] Blakey and he was unhappy. He wanted to play with me. I said, 'When I get back to New York, we'll get together.' And we did. It connected strongly when I put the group together with Jack [DeJohnette] and [bassist] Cecil McBee.

"Our first big gig was at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore. Everyone was screaming 'This is it! This is it!' People could hear it, you know."

The next pianist to remake Lloyd's life was the tragic but magnificent French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who traveled to America to seek out Lloyd in Big Sur after he'd been semiretired for more than a decade.

Petrucciani, who suffered from "glass bone disease" and only grew to be 3 feet tall, turned into a performer at the keyboard with huge technique and conception. When he was with Lloyd, it was a common sight to see the saxophonist carry his pianist onstage to protect him from damage.

"He was a 17-, 18-year-old kid from France when he showed up at my door. ... I wasn't even home when he came. My wife made him comfortable. He began to play my Steinway. She called me on the phone. I was at the barbershop at the time. He was barely 3 feet tall and he had this glass bone disease. Bones would break all the time. When he showed up, I was reading a Sanskrit text about a young man with a 'bent flame.' And then this little guy shows up.

"Elders had always helped me so I decided to end my retreat and take him around the world."

Lloyd now plays with the brilliant young pianist Jason Moran, "a very special young man" about whom everyone agrees, including the MacArthur Foundation, which last year awarded him one of its "genius grants."

It was Lloyd's drummer Eric Harland who introduced Lloyd to Moran. "He said he'd always loved my music. He said it touched him all the way to his backbone. And that's a Southern thing, so I knew what he meant."

>His signature sax

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Lloyd's playing of the last two decades has been his tenor saxophone sound, a wonder of the current jazz world.

"In '47 or somewhere around there, I was playing alto. I was drawn to the alto. I'm a singer who has no place in the world. And I always want to break out into song. I don't have the voice for it, I found it But the alto saxophone saved me

"The old-timers always said to me, 'Those notes don't mean anything if you don't have a beautiful sound.' That seed was planted in me. In 10 years, I had a beautiful sound. Pres [Lester Young] had a beautiful sound. Bird [Charlie Parker] had a beautiful sound. And Stan Getz comes out of Lester. And Trane [John Coltrane] comes out of Bird -- he comes directly out of Dexter [Gordon] with his sound. We all stand on the shoulders of someone I realized that if I moved over to the tenor from the alto, I could take the alto with me. So I bring the alto to the tenor. That's what I do."

Beauty of tone isn't something he hears passed on so much these days. "We lived in a time back then when music was sustenance and spiritual food. I don't know how people can live now. But still today something in me is younger than springtime."

e-mail:jsimon@buffnews.com

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The Charles Lloyd New Quartet with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland performs at 4 p.m. today in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery auditorium.

Tickes are $29; $25 for gallery members.

Tickets can be purchased at the gallery admissions desk or online at MuseumTix.com.

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