By Paul Robicheau
Charles Lloyd and Julian Lage and Zakir Hussain served a loose, flowing 65-minute set with complementary facility that belied the novel circumstances.
Guitar wunderkind Julian Lage first played with sax/flute guru Charles Lloyd 20 years ago at age 12, sitting in with Lloyd’s band at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, located in a wine-country town not far from Lage’s hometown of Santa Rosa, CA.
They’ve performed together since and were slated to play the same festival in June but, of course, those plans crumbled with the pandemic. Healdsburg’s retiring artistic director Jessica Felix nonetheless had some funds to expend from a National Endowment for the Arts grant and organized a concert livestream that was webcast from the audience-free Paul Mahder Gallery on Saturday.
Available for paid replay through Oct. 4, the online concert presented Lloyd and Lage in a first-time trio with tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, who worked with Lloyd in the group Sangam. And after a technical delay, the trio served a loose, flowing 65-minute set with complementary facility that belied the novel circumstances.
Lage, who drove from Nashville for the Bay Area encounter, certainly didn’t shrink from the pressure of performing with masters in both Lloyd, 82, and Hussain, 69. After Lloyd’s smoky tenor threads announced opener “Desolation Sound,” the guitarist was quick to assert himself, shifting from prickly brushed chords to a mutative solo laced with rubbed notes and harmonics. Likewise, once Lloyd established “Nachiketa’s Lament” with rippling flurries on his tarogato (an Eastern European reed instrument that resembles a wooden soprano sax), Lage delved into brittle, cyclical patterns with soft pauses and ringing accents on his Telecaster, lending structure and momentum as well as coloration.
Hussain was the musical wild card, elevating his own “Guman” and “Saraswati” with mournful chants over his undertow of fingertip rolls and sharp flams on the tabla, while Lloyd respectively floated in on flute and shakers. The first half of the set often felt more like tentative buildups than complete tunes as the musicians traded passing ideas, but Hussain seemed notably engaged with Lage as a foil.
When the guitarist settled into a spy-noir figure that evoked the theme from The Twilight Zone in Lloyd’s playful “Zoltan,” Hussain responded with a straight beat on his largest tabla drum or bayan. He anchored a later solo on the bayan as well, pressing deep tones that evoked dripping water before tapping a range of higher pitches from several other tabla and accelerating the pace. For a band lacking the traditional foundation of trap drums or bass, “Booker’s Garden” came closest to the feel of a hard-swinging rhythm as Lage and Hussain played off each other, quickening and elaborating on the pulse after Lloyd’s spritely flute intro.
Throughout the set Lloyd served as a tonal center, launching pieces with melodic segments (and sometimes slipping into split-tone sustains), culminating with his sinuous tenor in the Middle Eastern motif of closer “Tales of Rumi.” He went back to flute for an encore of Hussain’s “Kuti,” where the percussionist returned to prayerful vocals and Lage commanded more artful turns on guitar in the footsteps of tonally pithy Lloyd predecessors Bill Frisell and the late John Abercrombie.
It was Abercrombie on the Healdsburg bandstand when Lloyd invited the preteen Lage onstage in 2000, and the saxophonist spoke after Saturday’s set to recall the veteran guitarist jokingly threatening to drown Lage in a local lake. Instead, the local youngster officially returned to Healdsburg stages a dozen times, and this virtual summit proved again that he’s ideally suited to swim with giants.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.