JazzTimes

ABSOLUTE TORCH & TWANG

WHEN CHARLES LLOYD WAS A TEENAGER IN 1950s Memphis, he played saxophone in a jazz and R&B band that crossed the Mississippi River to play the all-night roadhouses in West Memphis, Arkansas. Those clubs presented white country bands in the afternoons, and the ever-inquisitive Lloyd often checked them out. He was soon captivated by the sound of the steel guitar, an instrument that could slide through microtones like a trombone, squeal like a trumpet, and sizzle like an electric guitar. Ultimately, though, it sounded like nothing in the jazz world.

He was further fascinated by Al Vescovo, the steel player for the Snearly Ranch Boys who collected Art Tatum and Duke Ellington records and often hung around after his gig to hear Lloyd play Lester Young licks. The two adolescents got together to play and explore the possibilities of the steel guitar in a jazz context. But it was not to be.

“The neighbors came to my mom,” Lloyd remembers, “and said, ‘What’s with this white boy coming around?’ They thought I was punking out. So we had to stop getting together, but it was never about that; it was always about the music. Al knew there was more to music than those three or four chords, and he wanted to climb up on the rooftop where I was. Though Al and I weren’t able to keep playing together, I never lost that dream of playing jazz with a steel guitarist. You have these dreams, and across the decades they can come true. And they did, when I met Greg.”

He’s referring to Greg Leisz, the pedal steel guitarist that Lloyd met through Bill Frisell. The saxophonist was so excited by the combination of instruments that he formed a new band, Charles Lloyd & the

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