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Zakir Hussain to Accompany Jazz Legend Charles Lloyd

December 2005
Zakir Hussain to Accompany Jazz Legend Charles Lloyd

A Tribute to Billy Higgins

In an exclusive interview with Khabar, Zakir talks fondly about the spiritual connection with legendary Jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd who sees in Zakir his deceased friend and jazz partner Billy Higgins.

Whose brainchild was this tour? And how did you come onboard?

The idea sprang up in Charles Lloyd's mind. He is one of the greatest living jazz musicians and was probably the first ever to have a million-seller in the ‘60s. He used to work with another great jazz musician, Billy Higgins, a drummer. They used to be very close friends and were performing duet concerts. Higgins passed away maybe two years ago, and when that happened Mr. Lloyd was very depressed. Later, he came to a concert of mine called Shakti (with guitarist John Mclaughlin) in LA; and he was totally taken. He tells me that he had this vision that Higgins was there telling him ‘Get this guy. I am gone, so get him now!' So Charles Lloyd and I played a couple of duet concerts; the first one was called ‘The Sacred Space,' oddly enough, because we played at the Grace Cathedral. It all began there, and it felt so intimate, so incredibly personal between us. Mr. Lloyd said that as if Billy Higgins had come back for him. And then, Charles had this jazz band with Eric Harlan playing drums, and he thought that maybe he and I should come together. That's how Eric came on board. When I started playing with them it was as if playing with my brothers. It was very warm, very friendly, and lots of fun. It is a strange combination?of a horn player with two drummers. It is very unusual?there is no base, no piano accompanying us? but it works! So that's how it came about. Charles had a very spiritual connection with Billy Higgins, and that kind of connection?sort of, emerged between Charles and myself and Eric. So this is almost like a tribute to Billy Higgins.

Even though, as you had pointed out, you are an accompaniment to Charles Lloyd on this concert, there seems to be a good bit of Eastern touch, including Urdu lyrics. What was your role in the creation of this performance?

We had pieces come up [spontaneously] throughout our interaction. There wasn't any effort by Mr. Lloyd to impose his compositions on Eric and me. It was amazingly generous of him to just walk in the room with us and say ‘Lets play.' So it's a contribution from all of us that makes up the core of this performance. From my side, there is some raga inserts, some lyrics. We were discussing a raga and I happened to casually demonstrate it by singing a bit. And Charles said, ‘We have to take this on the stage!' I said I am not a singer, I am a tabla player! But he insisted, ‘Now you are a singer.' So that's how the lyrics came into play, and how I, a tabla player with my totally un-tuned voice ended up singing. [Elaborating further on Lloyd's appreciation of Eastern practices and the resulting touches on this performance, Zakir added]: You should know that Charles is also a practicing yogi, and he meditates regularly and follows certain dos and don'ts of this way of life.

How would you describe this experience of working with such a legend in the Jazz world?

If you translate this to my part of the world, it is like working with a great ustad or pundit?like Ali Akbar Khan or Pundit Ravi Shankar or my father or Hariprasad Chaurasia or Pandit Shivkumar?anyone of that stature. As far as the great ustads of the Jazz world, you would count Charles as one of the premier ones. And so, having been brought up in the Indian world of offering reverence to your seniors and bowing to the great masters, the same has naturally come forth in my behavior towards Charles Lloyd, as he is equivalent to the maestros of India.

How is this performance different than performing in an Indian classical setting?

We have total freedom, there are no boundaries, there are no parameters laid out. Everyday that we play is different. We do have a couple of songs that have lyrics, which I sing. So we will eventually get to them somehow, while keeping rest of the performance totally spontaneous. In Indian classical music, though, you will have the raga and the taal, and these have certain dos and don'ts. You will apply yourself to the performance of the raga according to the prescribed rules. But when we three play together, barring the idea of taking the melodic notes and the rhythmic pulse, everything else is open to suggestion and exploration.

Are there opportunities for jugalbandhi and other such off-the-cuff playfulness?

Actually, a ‘triple-bandhi'. Yes, we take off each other, but everybody is an equal contributor. There are times when Charles just stops playing and walks away and just stands there, watching both of us play. And you would think the drums would overpower the tabla, but Eric plays them with such sensitivity?he is using sticks but it's almost as if he were playing hand drums. At times he uses soft brushes; there are times he doesn't even hit the drums, just the rims. So he is working with the idea that onstage we need to hear ourselves clearly so that we can interact with each other and play off each other.

What other fusion partnerships have you had?

I have done Shakti (with guitarist John McLaughlin). I have done film music. I am working on the Masters of Percussion tour which is also fusion as it involves Eastern tribal drummers from India, South Indian drummers, North Indian drummers and melody players from all over, which all comes together in an extravaganza.

Would tabla lend well to other genres of music?blues, country etc?

Tabla is a rhythmic instrument. It plays time. So in that sense it will fit into anything. It's like the conga?even though it is a Latin percussion you use them in jazz, in pop music and all kinds. Rhythms are universal, so as long as you are playing the right rhythm, it lends itself to anything. I used to feel that there are limits [of tabla], but then I recently got into the remix and electronica world, which I never thought was possible, but it works.

What place does Indian classical enjoy in world music

Indian classical music is one of the premium forms of music in the world, and it is one of the premium ingredient in what world music is evolving into today. When you open up the can called ‘music' and you read the ingredients on the side, you will see Indian listed prominently. It is very important in today's music. From remixes to the world of Djs to the Asian underground scene there is so much of Indian music being utilized. I mean you go to any club in San Francisco and all you hear is dhamaal and bhangra or some version of Indian concoctions.

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