With both the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (his collaboration with Defunkt founder Joseph Bowie, Ernest Dawkins and Harold Murray) and the Ritual Trio (with AACM compatriots Ari Brown and Malachi Favors), El’Zabar has introduced a Pan African-American hybrid that is equal parts soul, blues, gospel, chant, chamber jazz and North African juju. It is an earthy, supple and spiritual gumbo with a nod to predecessors as diverse as Dizzy’s Cuban forays, Albert Ayler, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Pharoah Sanders seminal Sixties work.
As a songwriter and percussionist, El’Zabar is less a prodder forcing a sonic structure on his playing partners than a scout. He has the confidence in his musical vision to point his partners in the general direction and let them take flight from there. Of course, the choice of partners belies that confidence. The list of collaborators that have graced his recordings of the past decade - Sanders, Archie Shepp, Billy Bang - reads like a tableau of contemporary jazz. Less guest artists than kindred spirits, El’Zabar incorporates these original voices into the schema of his music so much so that their individual contribution seems inevitable. In all of this - the choices of multi-cultural elements, the rhythmic fluidity, the musical partnerships - El’Zabar provides the mortar for its foundation.
His latest Delmark release Love Outside of Dreams combines all of the above masterfully. Dubbing his "new" group the Kahil El’Zabar Trio, the leader has set up a framework for an inspired musical partnering with the saxophonist David Murray and bassist Fred Hopkins. Yet "new" is in name only. The three have played together in various factions of Murray’s many bands; however, never have they joined together in a trio setting and its this most bare of jazz formats that allows for some of their most creative playing.
The opening title track is an El’Zabar standard and it pushes the usually swaggering Murray to a more staccato, brittle, Archie Shepp tone. Closer to the early raw R&B sound than we’ve heard from Murray in years, his tenor is like a paint peeler revealing the primal melody beneath the unnecessary adornments. His solo stutters and crackles as Hopkins and El’Zabar provide percolating rhythm.
"Song for a New Africa" is another in El’Zabar’s series of nods to Mother Africa. Like Randy Weston, El’Zabar is comfortable appropriating the loping Arabic rhythms of North Africa, setting up languid melodies that unfold slowly in the desert heat. He plays ashiko and earth drums as he and Murray chant a resurrection song for the continent that has provided a rejuvenating pulse to the world’s music.
"Song of Myself" - like the title track - appeared on the Ritual Trio’s 2000 collaboration with Pharoah Sanders. It is an evocative ensemble piece with El’Zabar on traps, Hopkins bowing and Murray taking his first foray on the disc on bass clarinet. The somber tune seems almost a set-up for the red hot "Nia" that follows. On the strength of the muscular melody (a homage to Dizzy Gillespie and somewhat of a stuttering "Mr. P.C." in form), Murray ignites, blazing through the rhythmic changes with his finest funk grit. There are few tenor players who can compete with Murray’s emotive powers at such speed and he sputters, squeals and pops with abandon, never losing the thread of the melody nor the pulse of Hopkins’ buoyant backing.
"Meditation for the Celestial Warriors" showcases the other side to the saxophonist’s genius - his deconstructing of a ballad. Backed only by El’Zabar’s mbira (African thumb piano), Murray shows why he’s the inheritor of Ben Webster’s crown. Kahil shows in his mbira solo - as he did on the Ritual Trio’s "For the Love of My Father"- that instruments of the most limited tonal range in the right hands are capable of evoking depths of emotion.
"The Ebullient Duke" is another restructuring of an El’Zabar original and in its vitality is one of the most appropriate tributes to the great Ellington since Miles’ "Love Him Madly." One can almost hear the horn charts punching Murray on in Albert Ayler-meets-Ben Webster mode. El’Zabar lashes the rhythm on, riding his cymbal as Hopkins is sturdy as always.
After a brief Hopkins solo ("Fred"), the disc closes fittingly with "One World Family", a loose bit of funk blues that finds El'Zabar chanting his mantra for world peace while Murray shows once again why he's heir to Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet throne. The ebullient bounce is as joyous as a New Orleans Second Line stomp and all the bit as necessary.
Sadly, the disc will have to stand as a tribute to Hopkins who died six months after making this, his final recording. On it, "Nia" and his artful arco playing on "Song of Myself", he reveals one final time why he was a favorite of the New School. His soulful tone and limber accompaniment made him a favorite of freedom fighters like Murray and El’Zabar. It is why his recordings will continue to make him a favorite of all of us who value his contribution to creative music.