Musicians at saxophonist Charles Lloyd's level of artistry rarely, if ever, have a bad night. Some times out are better than others, though, and based on this live recording, May 23, 2004 was clearly one of those evenings.
Which Way is East (ECM, 2004), a series of intimate duets Lloyd recorded with Billy Higgins a few short months before the drummer's death in 2001, demonstrated a shared musical understanding that transcended style and convention. As much a spiritual document as a musical one, it had moments that were built upon the spirit of saxophonist John Coltrane's latter-day duets with drummer Rashied Ali. But whereas Coltrane pursued unrelenting intensity, Lloyd has always sought a Zen-like peace and tranquility.
That's not to say that energy doesn't course through the 75 minutes of Sangam, which finds Lloyd teamed with Zakir Hussaina tabla player who has bridged the gap between East and West better than mostand Eric Harland, who has emerged as one of the scene's most important new drummers. But the surprising thing about the recording is how complete it feels. "Tales of Rumi," last heard on Canto (ECM, 1997), is distilled to its barest thematic essential, with Hussain's tabla providing some semblance of a harmonic center while Harland's drums lithely dance around Lloyd's Eastern-tinged phrases.
Similarly, the drone-like nature of "Hymn to the Mother" has a different complexion than the version on Lift Every Voice (ECM, 2002), where guitarist John Abercrombie worked around pianist Geri Allen's modal underpinning. Here Lloyd takes it to a more positive place. And on the closing "Little Peace," Lloyd trades drummer Billy Hart's traditional swing from All My Relations (ECM, 1995) for more complex rhythmic interplay from Hussain and Harland.
Complex rhythms, in fact, define the general nature of how the two percussionists interact, but there's never a feeling of collision. Hussain's tabla may inherently possess the upper hand melodically, but Harland evokes equally melodic phrasing from his kit. On "Little Peace," following Lloyd's lithe flute solo, the two end up joyfully trading off with a spirit that's more cooperative than competitive.
Lloyd's solo piano piece, "Nataraj," is the album's most melancholic moment. Still, there's an underlying optimism that segues into Hussain's "Guman," where Harland takes over piano duty with a staggered yet elliptical single-note approach that feels somehow antithetical to Hussain's plaintive singing, before ultimately building to a gradually-escalating intensity underneath Lloyd's flute and Hussain's percussion.
Looking at Lloyd's body of work since he teamed with ECM in 1989, one can't help but feel that there's little beyond his reach. From the experimental Fish Out of Water (ECM, 1990) to the mainstream The Water is Wide (ECM, 2000) and last year's blending of the two on Jumping the Creek (ECM, 2005), the 70-year-old is truly at the top of his game. Sangam is continuing evidence that aging musicians can still evolve and deliver the best work of their lives.