Decades before Alonzo King had an inkling of his future as an internationally celebrated choreographer, he discovered the transformative power of music. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, King served as an altar boy in St. Cyprian’s Parish, where the choir’s Gregorian chants left the communicants “drunk with devotion,” King recalls. “There was an alchemy there in the room.”
Since founding his San Francisco company LINES Ballet in 1984, King has made it a central mission to capture the fusion of live music and movement by collaborating with an array of extraordinary sonic explorers. Last fall, powerhouse vocalist Lisa Fischer (a central subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) performed with LINES on “The Propelled Heart,” joining a glittering roster of King’s far-flung musical muses that over time have included tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, oud master Hamza El Din, tenor saxophone titan Pharoah Sanders, Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart and Baka artists from the Central African Republic.
The world premiere of King’s latest choreographic sojourn takes place at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, running April 21–30, when the company performs with pianist Jason Moran and tenor saxophonist/flutist Charles Lloyd. For the first week of the run (April 21–24) the duo delivers their original music live on stage, while the second week (April 27–30) features their recorded score.
A recipient of a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Moran first collaborated with King on 2009’s “Refraction,” the pianist’s maiden voyage composing for dance. He connected with LINES through his wife, the vocalist, composer and actress Alicia Hall Moran, and found that King’s ability to create visual analogies for rhythmic forms provided insight into his own creative process.
“I was working on music for my ‘blues’ recording, Same Mother, and Alicia read that Alonzo was also investigating the blues through contemporary ballet,” writes Moran, 41, via email. “I was overwhelmed during the performance. The company was superb and the music was divine. One score was by Pharaoh Sanders, and the other by Zakir Hussain. Alonzo was able to see and hear the common language in the music, driven by rhythm and spirituality.”
The new ballet, “Sand,” is a 10-part evening-length work created for the company’s 12 dancers, inspired by the duo’s contrasting but complimentary sensibilities. At 78, Lloyd is one of jazz’s most celebrated saxophonists, an NEA Jazz Master who has been a major force since replacing Eric Dolphy in drummer Chico Hamilton’s popular chamber jazz quintet of the early 1960s. He put his blues-steeped Memphis upbringing to use touring and recording with Cannonball Adderley in the mid 1960s, and attained rock-star status when his 1967 album Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey (Atlantic) became a massive hit. (His quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette had by that time already connected with young audiences at the Fillmore, where promoter Bill Graham's adventurous booking often paired jazz acts with popular rock bands.)
Moran joined Lloyd’s quartet about a decade ago, bringing a spiky intensity and earthy lyricism to the saxophonist’s music. While Moran still considers Lloyd a mentor, the duo's latest album is a striking co-led project, Hagar’s Song (ECM). King was drawn to the protean nature of their musical conversation, “this amazing wizardry and power and ability to turn the corner and bring out a new shape, a new texture that’s different from where they were,” he says.
“You never know who will lead, who will follow, or who will be quiet," King continues. "They allow room to develop the conversation, and there’s great love and respect between them. As starkly different as they seem, there’s a baseline of harmony, balance and peace that reoccurs, so in a way it’s like the gravity of the ocean. The ocean is huge and immense, and even when there’s a storm and the surface is thrashed with waves, the ocean itself is still calm underneath with a weight and profundity.”
Moran traces his interest in exploring the confluence of jazz and movement to his formative years on the New York scene, and experiences like witnessing a performance by panther-like pianist Cecil Taylor with Japanese dancer Min Takata. As a resident artistic director for the opening seasons of the SFJAZZ Center, he presented a series of concerts that put dance and movement in the foreground -- from his Fats Waller dance party to his collaboration providing live accompaniment to skateboarders navigating a miniramp erected in front of the stage.
“Jazz has always been about the movement, the relationship to the body,” Moran emphasizes. “The rhythms shake the room, thus shaking the world. Skateboarders, on the other hand, create extremely graceful ways of interacting with stationary objects. It’s magical, and as a former skater, I look for that grace on the piano... It’s an ongoing process, and as my body ages, I’m aware of how I feel music in the body, and my relationship to the piano continues to shift.”
Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, with the music of Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, appears at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in a series of eight performances running April 21–30. Details here.