Finding an Inner East
Sangam, featuring Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. At the Lobero Theatre. Saturday, Mar. 8, 8pm.
Previewed by Joseph Miller
There is a poem by Walt Whitman where the poet’s elastic identity migrates around the globe with the tides of humanity, from ancient Asia to modern America, only to end up facing west from California’s shore. With Manifest Destiny exhausted, the restless seeker can turn nowhere except within himself: “Where is what I started for so long ago / And why is it yet unfound?” The poem anticipated many seekers in the 20th Century who turned west to find an inner East. But few people illustrate the point better than pioneering jazz woodwind player and composer, Charles Lloyd, whose young star rose fast when he introduced the Flower Power generation to the joys of jazz—selling a million copies of his album “Forest Flower”—only to stun the music world by renouncing it all at the pinnacle of success. He retreated to Big Sur’s lonely coastline in the early 1970s to study Vedanta and practice meditation. “Something has happened to me where I’ve made a kind of cross-over before leaving,” he said last week, as he sat for an interview. ”You have to die to the world to not be attached.”
Lloyd was, however, not destined to remain buried. In 1981 the brilliant, 18-year-old French pianist, Michel Petrucciani (whose stature was stunted by the genetic disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta) showed up at Lloyd’s doorstep and appealed to him to return to the jazz world. They played together, and the retired reed man was profoundly moved: “I had to introduce this beautiful soul to the world.” The tour that followed (which opened at the Lobero Theatre) was a sensation. Audiences were affected by sight of the tall Lloyd carrying the handicapped Petrucciani to the piano bench; only then to experience a bright flight through musical spaces that knew no limits. A near-fatal illness a few years later compelled Lloyd to again sift his inner essentials. His subsequent recovery, at age 50, signaled a new era, and an eruption of unprecedented creativity has flowed across 25 years of writing, experimenting, touring, and mentoring, much of it recorded in a series of acclaimed ECM albums. Producer Manfred Eicher said of Lloyd’s 1989 comeback, “All the meat is gone, only the bones remain”.
The ‘Sangam’ trio began as a 2004 tribute concert at the Lobero Theatre for Lloyd’s longtime spiritual friend and musical colleague, the late drummer Billy Higgins. Lloyd brought together two percussionists: classical Indian tabla master, Zakir Hussain; and the gifted American drummer, Eric Harland, who also plays in Lloyd’s New Quartet. The Sanskrit word, ‘sangam,’ Lloyd explained, “starts out meaning ‘confluence,’ and it refers to the three rivers in India, the Ganges, the Jamuna, and the Svaraswati, which flows underground. These rivers meet up and go to the sea; so [also] these three spirits—Eric Harland, Zakir Hussain [and myself].” Although Sangam has subsequently performed elsewhere, including India and Montreal, March 8 will be the trio’s first return to its birthplace.
In addition to playing tabla, Hussain also sings in the trio. “You know what happened with that was—this is strange,” said Lloyd, “He wasn’t a singer [before Sangam]. But he came out here to UCSB [in 2001] to play a concert with a cousin of his, a great singer and sitar player [Shujaat Husain Khan]. I just loved that concert so much, and I always would say to Zakir that I wish someone would sing with us. He realized I was calling for that, and that’s when he started singing [the song] ‘Guman’. See, when I first heard him play, it was so soulful; it was like a throwback to earlier times when I heard these old Blues guys coming from a source. He comes from that deep source, the Ganges and stuff.”
“[Eric Harland] was born in Texas, and he became a Baptist minister when he was very young, but then the big ministry hit him,” Lloyd said. “He just sent me a track of a song that he recorded based on a piece of mine, called ‘Sea of Tranquility’. He took that germ, and he built a track around it; and he said, ‘I want to pay tribute to you as my meditative teacher.’ But the point is not that—I don’t call myself that. I’m a student. But he heard something in that, and it inspired him. When he [first] came to me he had a limited language. That was just flower: he’s [now] coming to himself.”
2013 was a milestone year for Lloyd. His 75th birthday was celebrated with a concert at the Temple of Dendur in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring personnel from his 2010 Athens concert. A new album of duets with pianist Jason Moran, Hagar’s Song, was released, honoring the memory of Lloyd’s great-great-grandmother who was a slave. Festival International de Jazz de Montréal honored Lloyd with the 2013 Miles Davis Award, and an extravagant concert celebration stretched three consecutive nights. Finally a superb bio-documentary about Lloyd, “Arrows Into Infinity,” directed by his wife and business partner, Dorothy Darr, premiered at the SB Film Festival. The mystery is how Lloyd continues to sustain such a high level of artistry, at once inspired and effortless. He puts it simply: “You find a way to share something with your fellow seekers here. I think we’re all seekers, it’s just that we don’t know it.”