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Extended Analysis

Charles Lloyd: Sangam

By Published: April 21, 2006
Charles Lloyd

At this juncture in his life and career, Charles Lloyd has become untouchable. His tone is so full of depth that it sounds good to nearly everyone who hears it; his scope is so broad that he can never be accused of coasting, yet he remains fundamentally listenable, so no one can throw labels like "obscurantist" or "self-indulgent" at him, either. He is spiritual but grounded, weird but accessible, old as the hills but still youngish enough in his attack that he seems to know the young man's game.

Sangam is a work full of drama and skill—around here, it will end up on virtually everyone's top ten list, and rightfully so—but its true genius lies not in its star or its scenario (this is Lloyd's first live album for ECM), but its casting. Zakir Hussain is simply the greatest tabla player in the world, an artist with enough credits on his own to deserve major stardom. (Seriously, listen to the stuff he does with Tabla Beat Science, which is truly the cutting edge of world-music jazz.) And Eric Harland is a name that should be as well-known now as that of any other living drummer. For Lloyd, a man who is always on a quest, these are the ultimate wingmen; they let him soar when he wants to, but they are also fully capable of burning on their own.

But they don't, at least not very often. This is no free jazz freakout, but a carefully planned jazz work that just happens to sound like it's all spontaneous. Lloyd leads this percussion-heavy trio through older songs like "Hymn to the Mother" and newer ones, but no one ever seems to miss a step or blow an opportunity to soar. "Tender Warriors" chugs right along on a bed of soft drum-shuffle and insistent tabla-tapping and thumping, while Lloyd searches for the universe with his tenor. The title track brings Harland more to the fore, laying down a dense and tense martial cadence for Hussain to riff over—it's funky and complex and scary, and you can almost hear the audience sigh with relief (and a little sadness) when Lloyd's Coltrane-ish lead rides in to save the day.

But Sangam is not all about defined roles. Each player steps up to take the lead sometimes; I'm telling you, you haven't lived until you've heard Hussain play the melody from Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" on his tuned hand-drums. And I love how Harland is capable of playing the spooky repeated figure on piano during "Gunam" so that Hussain can do his deep, compelling vocalization before Lloyd comes back in with his flute.

I am not sure what will come of this project. After all, it was recorded in 2004, and there hasn't been a studio album from these guys yet. I don't know if they're working on any more projects together. And I don't know why certain songs are titled "Nataraj" and "Tales of Rumi," or their deeper significance. All I really know is that this album captures the three grooviest motherfuckers in the world, all playing together perfectly, and it deserves some serious consideration as what ESPN would call "an instant classic."

Tracks: Dancing on One Foot; Tales of Rumi; Sangam; Nataraj; Guman; Tender Warriors; Hymn to the Mother; Lady in the Harbor; Little Peace.

Personnel: Charles Lloyd: tenor and alto saxophones, tarogato, bass and alto flutes, piano, percussion; Zakir Hussain: tabla, voice, percussion; Eric Harland: drums, percussion, piano.

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