Listen up: Charles Lloyd has long ago passed into ‘legendary’ status in the jazz community, and he stands on a par with any living musician, and quite a few who have already passed away as well. Ultimately, his influence on the music is enormous, from the peaceful, spiritual bent of his music, to his continued ability to produce fresh, high-quality music, to his tenor playing itself, muscular and roiled with post-Coltrane freedom, yet also lyrical and mystical. That even a musician of Lloyd’s advancing age and experience can find an idea fascinating and become re-invigorated by it is certainly an inspiration for the rest of us.
In this case, Lloyd became interested (or re-interested, for the idea has been there throughout his career) in utilizing instruments and percussion of India and Africa (including the tarogato) during the recording of Which Way Is East, the 2-CD set of improvisations featuring Lloyd and drummer Billy Higgins, who was ill and passed away shortly after. Lloyd was inspired to form the Sangam trio, which debuts here on this live recording from 2004. Lloyd is joined by master tabla player Zakir Hussain, and drummer/percussionist Eric Harland, who is a member of SF Jazz Collective and has worked with Lloyd since Higgins’ death, notably on the release Jumping the Creek.
The music on Sangam is utterly wonderful and full of life and spirit. Of course rhythm is the driving force throughout much of this performance—with two drummer/percussionists, how could it not be? Hussain and Harland play together very sympathetically, as though they had done so for years. Hussain’s tabla is not only another drum, but also provides the bass, or heartbeat throughout much of the performance. Lloyd is a rhythmically imaginative player, and there are moments when one is reminded of Sonny Rollins at his most robust. Lloyd also allows his Coltrane influence to show, but this is not to his detriment, because he is able to show that he has absorbed the lessons of Coltrane and can apply them in his own manner, without self-consciousness.
The highlights are many, and the live program flows beautifully from one selection to the next in a manner that suggests a lengthy group meditation rather than a structured musical event. Hussain kicks things off immediately in a high gear, with his tabla introduction on “Dancing on One Foot.” Harland provides some light percussion as well, building steady energy for two minutes before Lloyd enters, playing the tarogato, a single reed, clarinet-like instrument of Hungarian origin. The instrument sounds somewhat like a more sinewy soprano saxophone, en Lloyd plays it wonderfully, coaxing a strong tone and playing variations on his melodic theme effortlessly. Then the drummers take over, with Harland playing a very exciting drum solo that is wholly jazz-oriented while Hussain lightly keeps time beneath him. Harland’s solo ends the piece and propels it straight into “Tales of Rumi,” which pays tribute to the 13th-century Persian poet and scholar Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Lloyd switches to tenor sax on this track, and his debt not only to Coltrane, but also to saxophonists like Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp, can be heard. “Rumi” culminates in Hussain’s first lengthy solo, and he dazzles the audience with his ability to convey not only rhythmic, but also melodic or conversational content.
“Sangam” is a free-wheeling piece that feels like the most free piece thus far on the program. All of the players whirl with blazing kinetic energy, creating an ecstatic listening experience that recalls one of Hussain’s other projects, Tabla Beat Science. Following the brief piano solo “Nataraj,” Hussain’s own composition “Guman” provides an opportunity for the tabla player to exercise his vocal skills. This is the most unabashedly Indian piece heard so far in the program, the others being much more rooted in jazz (albeit jazz influenced by other world music as well as free jazz). It makes one aware of the real melding of musicians that is taking place on Sangam. These are not jazz musicians seeking to add on some Indian or Asian musical elements, nor are they ethnic musicians attempting to adapt themselves to a ‘jazz’ style of performance. Instead, these are three musicians who play together utilizing the special dialects they all speak within the vast language of music, but who listen and respond to each other in the moment so that the music they produce is something altogether unique to these particular musicians at this particular time.
Lloyd has risen, since his resurgence in the late 1980s and his subsequent string of stunning recordings for ECM, to become one of jazz music’s most refined elder statesmen, and the musician who has most been able to advance both the musical and spiritual agenda addressed by John Coltrane during his lifetime. Sangam shows a musician who is still searching, more than forty years into his musical journey, for new ways to approach his art, and, ultimately his life. That the Sangam trio arose as a tribute to his good friend Billy Higgins demonstrates how even such devastating loss can provide inspiration for the way to move forward. For anyone who is interested in improvisational music, this has to be one of the finest releases of the year to date.