Until recently, Charles Lloyd's association with Indian music has mainly been through subtle influence rather than direct participation. All this changed when he heard Zakir Hussain in concert. He was so inspired he felt compelled to work with the tabla maestro, an impulse from which this trio was born. Their debut concert, which was recorded for ECM and issued under the name Sangam, was dedicated to the memory of Lloyd's dear friend, drummer Billy Higgins, who passed away in 2001. Indeed, this group is a logical progression from Lloyd's duet explorations with Higgins from the previous ECM release, Which Way Is East, and in the spirit of that recording continues to develop a pan-cultural voice.
A number of jazz musicians have collaborated with Indian artists, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the best known is John McLaughlin who also worked with Hussain in the group Shakti, and on the latter's ground-breaking ECM recording Making Music. Others have included altoist Charlie Mariano, guitarist Larry Coryell and flutists Bud Shank, Paul Horn and James Newton. Currently active is a fine group, Sync, with multi-reed man Ned Rothenberg, guitarist Jerome Harris, and another tabla maestro, Samir Chaterjee. (See my recent concert review of Sync at: http://www.jazzreview.com/article/review-4663.html)
Sangam's approach is a little different from any of these. The Indian tradition is such a powerful one that jazz players such as McLaughlin and Horn tend to be drawn into it when working with Hindustani or Carnatik performers, with varying degrees of success. Lloyd does not take this approach but rather bends his sound in that direction without abandoning his roots. Hussain moves towards him as far as the sound of tabla will allow, and Harland compliments both voices with great empathy. This is essentially free improvisation with each player and the group is billed as a co-operative one contributing from his own background. Like all pure improvisation it is magical when it works, less so when it isn't happening. British jazz critic Charles Fox commented on Ornette Coleman's ability to edited everything as it emerged from his horn. Not too many free players have this ability, but the level of musicianship in this trio is such that the great moments outweigh the more lackluster ones. Perhaps the outcome could be a little more even with some judicious writing, but the trio seems dedicated to purely free improvisation, and as a former member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in London, I would be the last one to argue against balancing the risks and rewards of that approach.
Lloyd was heard on both tenor and alto saxophones, taragato and alto flute, and also, as at the opening of the set, sat down at the piano from time to time to establish a mood. Harland also moved from his drums to add some keyboard colors. Hussain was, as usual, stunning with his tabla technique, but also added some vocal mnemonics that morphed into chanting. Whatever instruments were in use, the trio aimed for the kind of music that emerges when musicians from diverse culture seek common ground. As Lloyd told Down Beat's Tom Conrad, "I'm trying to get to the place where the tone is just the distillation of essence, and that quality of suchness or purity can come through. It's a selfless kind of high. It's like a benediction. I'm still trying." We look forward to the next installment in his quest.