Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain & Erik Harland at the Dakota Jazz Club
Dakota Jazz Club
November 18, 2004
A switch in digs from St. Paul to Minneapolis did the venerable Dakota jazz club a great deal of good. With a roomier and more acoustically friendly space on Nicollet Mall smack center in the larger city's downtown district foot traffic has improved right along with sight lines to the stage. National and international talent regularly stacks the roster and while the cover charges are steep (anywhere from $25-$45 dollars per set), the cuisine, drink and ambiance are in line with sister venues in larger locales like New York and San Francisco.
Saxophonist Charles Lloyd touched down in the Twin Cities for a one night stand at the Dakota earlier this month. Billing the gig as a tribute to his dearly departed friend and colleague, drum doyen Billy Higgins, Lloyd enlisted the talent of tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and drummer Erik Harland. I arrived in time for the trio's second set and was pleasantly surprised by the large crowd queued up to witness the show. To my chagrin the "press table" was designated to the distant stage right, directly adjacent to the kitchen entrance, in effect the "nosebleed" section of the club. The clatter of plate and glassware along with the chatter of chefs' conversations regularly competed with the music.
The set opened with an unexpected screening of Home , a film short shot by Lloyd's wife during the recording of the sessions and resulting concerts that presaged the release of Which Way is East on ECM . From my neck craning vantage point the screen was a bit difficult to see, but it seemed an odd way to start things off, especially considering the palpable anticipation amongst the audience for live music. Various meditative montages of rippling lake surfaces and wind blown lake grasses alternated with rehearsal, concert and interview footage of both Lloyd and Higgins. While mildly engaging, the film still struck me as peripheral to why everyone was assembled. In addition copies were for sale on DVD in the lobby for $10, purchased by more than a few patrons prior to entry. Fortunately it didn't last long and the three musicians soon strode on stage.
Setting up in a natural triangle formation on the Dakota's modest proscenium, the trio carried its spiritual trappings on its sleeves. Lloyd, dressed in fur-rimmed sherpa hat and coarse-woven prayer robe seated himself a the piano with tenor slung around his neck sounding plaintive one-handed notes at the ivories and weaving similar note chains between on feathery sax. Hussain and Harland joined the action soon after crafting a joint cadence as Lloyd blew melodious tones, stepping away from the piano and gaining intensity. Swinging his horn in a seesaw pattern up and down his solo surged forward as Hussain played the part of a walking bass with fast-palmed ringing harmonics. The piece concluded with a stunningly fast pattern of interlocking beats.
Hussain's polyrhythms set the second piece in motion, his hands, palms and fingers exhibiting an agility that was blindingly fast and intricately hypnotic. Quoting the melody of "St Thomas" and backed by Harland on marimba his solo was the first of several that had me marveling at his skill. Lloyd entered on alto, blowing what sounded like Eastern scalar patterns with a mellow piquancy. Together with the drums his solo was oddly reminiscent of Sonny Rollins "Jungoso." Later the drummers engaged in the first of what would be several duets, building to a crescendo that had the audience giggling, cheering and clapping with rampant enthusiasm.
Lloyd hoisted tarogato for the third piece, handling the European reed like a kinder, gentler Brötzmann and shaping what sounded like an Arabic-tinged dirge of twirling lines. Soon after another drum duet Hussain broke ranks for another solo this time pulling out the stops with a range of melodic pop music quotes including "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Mission Impossible." The improvisation reached it's culmination in a mouth-percussion duet between the two drummers with Hussain sounding off teental beats and Harland answering with some human beat box tricks. Lloyd joined in the fun on shakers.
Back to tenor for the fourth outing, Lloyd sounded a solemn legato progression over a bed of malleted toms and droning voices. Suddenly the solemn clouds broke with tenor cycling playfully through registers and landing in the upper reaches as the drums patterned a driving current of rhythms. Seemingly uncertain as to how to end the music eventually dispersed into silence. The fifth and final number found Lloyd on flute, riffing over a skeletal dual drum rhythm to the point of redundancy. Dropping out he left the floor to his partners. Hussain took the lead first in riveting display that had his fingers racing across the tautly stretched tabla skins. Harland followed, crafting another cascading display behind the kit. Both solos presaged the two together in another momentum-ratcheting finish that had them mimicking the tonal diversity of a full steel drum ensemble. Responding to the exuberant applause brought about by their wild finish Lloyd led the band back on stage for a single encore. A solo alto extemporization on what sounded like the melodic kernel of "Tenderly" segued into another ensemble improv with Harland turning to piano, tapping out dark pedal-dampened Jarrett-like chords and Hussain mixing another tabla pattern with impassioned rhythmic vocals. Lloyd joined on flute to take the piece out once again to resounding approval from the crowd.
Based on attendance and overall inspiration by the performers the concert could easily be considered a success. Still, I left the Dakota feeling as if I'd been privy to something merely good that could've been great. Lloyd seemed to rest a bit on his reputation and the skill of his partners, hanging back when he could've engaged them with a comparable level of veracity and passion. With his lifetime of accomplishments and a career that continues to bear creative blossoms he owes no one anything. I just expected a bit more given what's come before.