Charles Lloyd with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland: Sangam

[1 May 2006]

By Daniel Spicer

Almost the last thing to be heard on this stunning live recording is an ecstatic audience member, amidst the applause, crying ‘‘Thank you so much,’’ in a perfect and spontaneous expression of the great joy emanating from this performance. Sangam, the album title, translates as “union” or “confluence” and is apt in describing not just the breath-taking interplay and common purpose among the three musicians in Charles Lloyd’s new trio, but also the deep spiritual love that sweeps off the stage and into the audience, taking up everyone in the excitement of the moment: inclusive, playful, joyous. It’s a brilliant example of the phenomenon Allen Ginsberg described as “wholly communion,” and it’s utterly infectious, even in the form of a CD played on your stereo.

Truly, this new trio – featuring Lloyd on saxes and flute, Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, and the young American drummer Eric Harland - is an absolute revelation. Recorded live in California in 2004, this CD documents their debut performance, and positively crackles with energy and invention. The gig was conceived as a memorial concert for Lloyd’s late friend and collaborator, drummer Billy Higgins, and set about revisiting some of the pan-cultural regions that the two explored in recordings such as 2001’s Which Way is East. In fact, Lloyd has consistently been looking east for inspiration since at least the mid-‘60s, which explains in part why he was so popular among the counterculture of the time, sharing bills with the Byrds and the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore. Forty years later, Sangam represents his most complete and exhilarating expression of that search.

Lloyd is on stellar form throughout, conjuring hot, writhing shapes from tenor and alto saxes, flute, and wooden taragato that somehow manage to combine husky, boppish blowing with snakelike, eastern sonorities. But it’s the twin percussionists who truly define this trio’s presence. Hussain’s tablas set up minutely detailed rhythmic patterns, recorded with amazing clarity, that carry enough musical information to entertain like an entire ensemble. Similarly, Harland’s Elvin Jones-ish polyrhythmic batteries wander all over the beat with breathtaking invention, often sounding like a whole troupe of drummers. When the two play together, entering into extended dialogues, the result is utterly enthralling and devastatingly explosive. Rhythm never felt so vital.

During the long trio passages, with Lloyd blowing to heavy percussive accompaniment, the absence of bass or piano seems to up the anchor and liberate the music, allowing it to become a kind of “free-groove,” reminiscent in places of Ornette Coleman’s foot-tapping yet cerebral excursions. In any case, Hussain’s tablas do an admirable job of providing the bottom-end, making the most of the bass notes from the larger, “duggi” tabla to provide sensitive and witty melodic support – even throwing in lighthearted quotes from Sonny Rollins’ “St Thomas” and Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

Elsewhere, the musicians break away from this hypnotic template to reveal other talents. “Nataraj” is a short and satisfying solo piano piece that finds Lloyd setting out chords like thick globs of acrylics on canvas, accentuating shape and texture. For Hussain’s composition, “Gunam”, Harland takes the piano stool, picking out a stubborn melodic and rhythmic scrap that holds the tune together, providing a glowering backdrop against which Hussain pours out a vocal performance full of naked vulnerability and spiritual yearning, that almost breaks down into moans and weeping as he delves into the deepest registers he can muster - and leading into a Lloyd flute solo that brilliantly captures the earthy timbre of the vocals before transforming into something more transcendent, like enlightenment unfolding.

Clearly, this album is the product of some deep thinking and heartfelt spiritual beliefs but the bottom line is that it swings like hell. There won’t be many albums released this year that will cause this reviewer to involuntarily yell “yeah!” out loud, while wearing headphones late at night in a darkened room and risk waking his sleeping children. Highly recommended.

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