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Charles Lloyd / Eric Harland / Zakir Hussain
Minneapolis MN, 18 November 2004

Even before ECM’s 2004 release of Which Way Is East, it was clear how close a partnership had developed between Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins.  Higgins was Lloyd’s drummer of choice for most of his late-90s/early-00s recordings, making the passing of “Master Higgins” (as Lloyd lovingly referred to him) in 2001 an even harsher blow than it ordinarily might have been.  As a document of Lloyd and Higgins’ empathetic rapport, the informal duets captured on Which Way Is East served as both posthumous tribute and testament to the depths of their musical relationship; yet one gets the sense that Lloyd missed his friend and collaborator too much to let his legacy rest on even an exhaustive two-disc’s worth of recorded music.

Fast-forward to November 2004 and Lloyd’s somewhat surprising one-night tribute to Higgins at Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club & Restuarant, accompanied by young drummer Eric Harland and renowned tabla master Zakir Hussain—a combination that seemed rife with the possibility of furthering the loose, spiritual vibe of Lloyd and Higgins’ recorded duets.  The evening’s honorable intentions were pushed to the fore, as attention was directed to a large screen behind the stage for an introductory documentary film that mixed interview footage of Lloyd reminiscing about his departed friend with live studio performances of some of the music that appeared on Which Way Is East.  While the material was well put together, its 20+ minutes bordered on excess when the audience was clearly anticipating Lloyd, Harland, and Hussain’s real-time tribute to the evening’s honoree.

Fortunately, any unease was dispelled when the trio took the stage.  Facing each other in a seated triangle, the musicians began a sparse, conversational piece with Lloyd fingering sustained chords on piano to provide self-accompaniment for his tenor sax.  Lloyd’s tone on tenor, particularly in this live setting, was impeccable—warm, rich, and almost buttery as it filled the room with his ecstatic, yet always melodic lines.  Harland kept his contribution on this first piece rather minimal, stepping back with a shuffle pace, while Hussain showed his virtuosity from the onset by playing the equivalent of walking bass lines on his tablas.

Hussain’s prominence carried over into the second piece of the set, in an unaccompanied section where his speed and mastery of his instrument’s tonal properties was on full display.  Harland joined in on balafon, setting up a strangely hypnotic rhythm for Lloyd to soar upon, this time on alto sax.  It was one example of many throughout the evening that attested to the union between Harland and Hussain; for players who have collaborated infrequently at best, they responded to each other’s dynamic shifts with a heightened sense of connectedness.

The third piece got off to a similarly engaging start, with Lloyd this time choosing the targato to embroil himself in the ebbing and swelling of Harland and Hussain’s rhythmic tide.  However, Lloyd’s egalitarian attitude inclined him to sit down for a little too long on this piece, allowing the percussionists to indulge in some wayward chop-busting.  Hussain’s extended vocalisations, though crowd-pleasing, accounted for the only truly overstated part of the set, especially when Harland grabbed a microphone and joined in.

The next piece continued the emphasis on Hussain’s vocals, but this time his contributions were much more in line with the slow-burning spirituality of the music that emerged from the initial group improvisation.  In fact, the spiritual feeling was so deep that Lloyd put down the flute he had picked up at the commencement in favor of tenor sax, eventually building to a testimonial fervor over the devotional groove laid down by Harland and Hussain.

A final, lengthy percussion dialogue (in which Lloyd returned to the flute he had eschewed earlier) and two encore pieces ended the evening, with the trio seeming exhausted toward the end.  The encore’s first section found Lloyd on solo alto sax, doing a loose reading of an unidentified standard (“Everything Happens To Me”?), eventually rejoined by Hussain and Harland on two-finger drone piano.  Hussain once again offered some haunting vocals for the Middle Eastern-influenced direction the music took.

By the end of the set, the three musicians appeared to be enjoying themselves too much to let the music go, but there was also a feeling that they had run out of fresh ideas.  Nevertheless, the music that transpired over the course of the evening was a more than fitting tribute to the polycultural embrace of its dedicatee.  Billy Higgins is remembered most for his smiling, generous disposition—and it was impossible not to be reminded of that in the wake of Lloyd, Harland, and Hussain’s performance.