Sangam, the organic, exhilarating project of multi-instrumentalist Charles Lloyd, tabla master Zakir Hussain and drummer Eric Harland, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Its inclusion tonight in the Crossings series at the Mondavi Center, “where genre walls collapse,” is a perfect fit.
The project’s name translates from Hindu tradition as a confluence of three rivers. “And that is what we are,” said Lloyd via email, in reference to each member’s origin, “the Ganges (Hussain), the Rio Grande (Harland) and the Mississippi (Lloyd) flowing together. Eric and I don’t try to play Indian ragas, and Zakir doesn’t try to play jazz, but together we create music that weaves the two together in a most joyful way.”
The trio’s second concert in 2004 was recorded and released as Sangam in 2006 as Lloyd’s 11th album on the ECM label. It is a rapturous baptism of lyricism, exploratory harmonics, world polyrhythms and improvisation. Tabla and drum set alternate as co-conspirators and propulsive vanguards as Lloyd moves from saxophones, flutes and tarogato to piano and percussion.
The group has added new music to its repertoire and performed worldwide.
“Last March we had a sold-out concert at the Kennedy Center in celebration of my 75th birthday,” said Lloyd. “We’ve had concerts under a full moon in an ancient 3,000-seat amphitheater in Istanbul and in Mumbai celebrating Zakir’s father, Alla Rakha (a tabla master who recorded with drummer Buddy Rich in 1968). The last time we performed together was in July 2013 in Molde, Norway. Each concert is a continuing thread of our life’s experience.”
For Lloyd that experience includes a duet double album with drummer Billy Higgins (Lloyd refers to him as Master Higgins) titled “Which Way Is East,” a prelude of sorts to Sangam, recorded in January 2001 (Higgins died in May that same year) and released in 2004. Lloyd, a Buddhist, and Higgins, a devout Muslim, had a deep friendship on and off the bandstand since meeting as teens in Los Angeles. The album is an intimate swan song of free jazz, New Age reflection and spiritual connectivity.
Lloyd was born in Memphis of mixed ancestry. “My great-grandmother explained to me that some of our ancestors came over on the Bering Strait from Mongolia,” he said. “I also have African American, Irish and Cherokee heritage.”
Most of Lloyd’s childhood was spent on his grandfather’s farm in Mississippi. He picked up saxophone at age 9 and was mentored by pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. As a pre-teen, he debuted in such blues bands as that of Howlin’ Wolf.
“He used to say to us: ‘You play with Wolf and you eat pork chops, you play with other bands you get neck bones.’ He was the essence of the blues,” said Lloyd.
Lloyd’s left Memphis in 1956 to attend USC. In 1966, he formed a classic quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Their album “Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey” sold a million copies and got them booked into the psychedelic concert halls of San Francisco. He then dropped off the radar sporadically because of personal, physical and drug issues.
Guitarist John McLaughlin invited Lloyd to hear his band Shakti with Hussain on tablas at UCLA in 2000.
“I had not heard Zakir play live,” said Lloyd. “They were playing so much deep blues, Indian style, that afterwards I couldn’t stop hugging him. A year later we did a duo concert together at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco – just after 9/11. We connected on a deep level, and felt great joy making music together.”
Lloyd met SFJAZZ Collective veteran Harland shortly after Higgins’ death. “I had a date at the Blue Note in New York City,” he said, “and Eric was playing with the midnight jam band. I knew that Higgins had sent him. Higgins had said he ‘would always be with me,’ so I recognized Eric immediately. He has been playing with me since.
“I stand on the shoulders of all who came before me,” said Lloyd of his musical legacy. “Howlin’ Wolf, Bobbie Blue Bland, Johnny Ace, Willie Mitchell, Bird (Charlie Parker), Prez (Lester Young) and Lady Day (Billie Holiday) – Trane (John Coltrane), Mr. (Coleman) Hawkins, they are all a fiber of my expression.
“We always like for an audience to come to our concerts with (open) minds and hearts – and hope they go away feeling uplifted and inspired. When I was growing up, music was my inspiration and consolation. I hope I can give the same to the listener.”