Music

Charles Lloyd with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland: Sangam

Daniel Spicer

The last of the great cosmic jazzmen takes a trip way out east with this exhilarating live recording.


Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland

Sangam

Display Artist: Charles Lloyd with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland
Label: ECM
US Release Date: 2006-04-04
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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