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Live Reviews

A Mystical Sangam: Charles Lloyd at the Library of Congress, Nov. 8, 2006

By Published: November 22, 2006

Lloyd has assumed the role of a musical shaman; he is the musical intermediary between our daily humble frustrations and the possibilities inherent within a more encompassing, philosophic perspective on knowledge and acceptance

Although his emergence over forty years ago with Chico Hamilton's "chamber jazz organization and his appearance with Cannonball Adderley's group in 1964 provided a firm foundation within the jazz tradition, Charles Lloyd has surpassed conventional boundaries and expected means of musical expression. Indeed, when French pianist Michel Petrucciani coaxed Lloyd from his contemplative retirement in the early '80s, Lloyd reemerged with a seemingly whole new perspective about the role of the creative musician.

Since Fish Out of Water in 1989, his first recording for the ECM label, Lloyd has assumed the role of a musical shaman; he is the musical intermediary between our daily humble frustrations and the possibilities inherent within a more encompassing, philosophic perspective on knowledge and acceptance. Whether Lloyd is working within the context of a traditional jazz quartet, or performing with his "Sangam group, he exudes an enveloping sense of calm and contemplation. In short, Lloyd is able, with a hushed and knowing musical phrase, to diagnose our ills and provide the necessary auditory salve for our being.

With very few concert dates in the United States this year, Sangam arrived at the Library of Congress' intimate and historic Coolidge Auditorium to meet an expectant audience for their November 8 concert. Consisting of Lloyd on various wind and percussion instruments, legendary tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and percussionist Eric Harland, the personnel assembled for the occasion easily surpassed even the most demanding of expectations.

Lloyd emerged silently from sliding pocket doors at the rear of the stage, partially obscured behind the swirling curvature of the open top of the grand piano. His lanky frame was sheathed in a long blue cloak, with crisply creased slacks and newly shined dress shoes emerging from beneath the garment. A green-striped cap was atop his head, with tufts of graying hair poking from under the cloth rim. Subtle shaded spectacles hid his eyes from the audience. He welcomed the group in the auditorium with the traditional veneration mudra, with his palms gently held together at chest level, signifying both his greeting to, and respect for, the listeners.

Instead of immediately picking up one of the woodwinds lined up on the stage floor rack, he seated himself at the piano and verbally intoned "they're here, and they will come," seeking to appease anyone worried that the remainder of the trio would not appear. The emerging notes from the piano were played slowly and contemplatively, coming from the instrument's middle range, and prowling gently, as if searching for a tonal focus. After a few moments, the pocket doors silently slid open again, welcoming Harland and Hussain. Harland did not approach the traditional drum kit located on stage left, however, but stood behind Lloyd, as the latter continued to play the piano. Soon the drummer leaned over to play with Lloyd, and each of them assumed a register on the instrument. Next, Harland sat beside Lloyd on the bench, as the two began an intimate musical conversation.

Hussain, barefoot and dressed in a traditional Indian garment, leaped on the small platform containing five tablas and several percussion instruments. He removed a head from one of the tablas, and gently rubbed the drum's skin. The texture of the head met with the coarse skin of his fingers, at once becoming both a percussion and tonal instrument. Lloyd continued as his slowly figured lines appeared to degenerate into chaos. Harland was, at this point, standing while leaning his entire body into the piano, like a mechanic examining the engine of a car under a vehicle's open hood; in this position he proceeded to pluck the strings as if a horizontal harp rather than the piano were his instrument of choice.

Lloyd then promptly stood up from the piano, while Harland took his place. However, Lloyd surprised the audience once again by passing the neatly displayed wind instruments and seating himself at the drum set. He played the toms and snares with both his palms, and then the sticks. Hussain was, at this point, vocalizing a mystical and wordless poem, while his hands busied themselves with the array of tablas in front of him. Finally, Lloyd vacated the drums and Harland left the piano, allowing Lloyd to pick up a flute. The ensuing mysterious melodic line appeared to have a hypnotic effect on the audience. An auspicious beginning to the evening.

The second spontaneous composition began with a duet between Harland and Hussain. Lloyd picked up the tarogato, an instrument he favors of late. It is a single reed instrument with a conical bore, and looks like a large clarinet made from rosewood, though its East European origins soon became evident, especially when Lloyd displayed its natural mournful sound. As he did so, his body began to sway and writhe, his legs lifting up one after another. He appeared to be in a trance, and traces of "A Love Supreme emerged from the dirge-like melodic line. Upon completing his statement, he gently returned the tarogato to its rack and, with arms behind his back, inconspicuously walked behind the piano, leaving his band mates to continue their colloquy. With Harland's polytonal rhythmic line and Hussain's tablas, the auditorium was transported in time and place far from its location this evening on Washington's Capital Hill.

The group continued with a piece which began with a solo by Harland, however not a "traditional statement from a conventional trap drum set. Hussain's influence was also apparent, contributing to the exotic mood of the evening. For the first time in the performance, Lloyd picked up his tenor saxophone and had a brief dialogue with Hussain's tablas. During a brief solo, Hussain's drums suddenly played "Happy Birthday," and Hussain grinned widely while pointing to Harland. Otherwise, Hussain contained his statements, illustrating the orchestral possibilities of a few percussion instruments in the dexterous hands of a master.

The evening continued with a crushing statement by Lloyd at the piano. Hussain gently propelled the musical syntax, and Harland barely moved a string of shells over the drums. Hussain, in a hushed voice, vocalized a mysterious line. Lloyd, like Charles Mingus on the piano, is perhaps not masterful on the instrument, but he is deeply emotive and not constrained by technical formalities and expectations. His musical meditations were at once a wistful prayer and note of thanks. Lloyd then picked up the tenor once again and merely breathed into the instrument, without accompaniment from his colleagues. The piece concluded as it began: just barely.

After a brief encore, the musicians remained to meet with those audience members who felt no need to dash into the traffic of the city. Lloyd exuded a sense of personal calm and reflection, exerting a soothing effect on all who spoke with him. A large contingent of people from India surrounded Hussain both to congratulate him and to mingle with a national legend. Eric Harland met with various drumming aficionados. It was satisfying to observe that each musician was personally as positive and welcoming as his music.

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