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Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio Featuring Billy Bang

Big M: A Tribute to Malachi Favors

(Delmark; US: 17 Oct 2006; UK: Available as import)

Kahil El’Zabar is one of those mysterious Chicago jazz cats who have been plugging away for decades, with spotless Afro-centric avant-garde credentials, who, nevertheless, seem to have somehow slipped under the radar of public notice, consigned to an in-the-know hinterland of relative anonymity. One only has to look at the list of artists with whom this master drummer has worked in recent times to get an idea of the sort of firepower we’re talking about here: Pharoah Sanders, David Murray, Archie Shepp, Joseph Jarman. You get the idea: this is a serious player.


More to the point, dude’s got heritage. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music since 1969, El’Zabar has been a key, if little known, member of Chicago’s underground jazz brethren since he was a teenager. Paramount in this history has been his relationship with and tutelage by the late, great Malachi Favors—founding member and bassist with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In 1986, El’Zabar started to make his own name with the Ritual Trio: a heavy band that, in its initial incarnation, found him joined by Favors and fellow Art Ensemble stalwart, trumpeter Lester Bowie.


Well, history is history, and those two greats are now no longer with us. But it wasn’t to be the end of the Ritual Trio. Moved by Favor’s death in 2004, El’Zabar set about forming a new, revamped Ritual Trio—comprising Yosef Ben Israel on bass and Ari Brown on tenor sax and piano—to pay tribute to the passing of the great man. For this set, they were joined by loft-scene veteran Billy Bang, on violin in order to record a tribute to Malachi Favors. The result is a gripping, compelling and ultimately very moving album: seven tracks, each one celebrating in one way or another the memory of Favors’ towering presence.


The first thing you’ve got to realise is that this is a very heavy band indeed: a quartet of extraordinarily versatile musicians, capable of conjuring many moods and directions. Secondly, all praise goes to Yosef Ben Israel for taking on the thankless task of filling Favors’ shoes as the first bassist to play with the Ritual Trio since his passing. And—what do you know?—as it happens he turns in a massively substantial performance: commanding, pivotal and downright funky. Every track here swirls around his cold-to-the-bone trance-riffs. Call him the backbone.


The album kicks off with “Crumb-Puck-U-Lent”, an urgent and bluesy slice of funk centred around a fruity bassline. From the get-go you can hear where these cats are coming from: Brown’s sax has a lazy, bleating quality that tells you he could go up and down the changes if he wanted to but, goddamit, he just don’t feel like it. And Billy Bang’s busy, gnawing solo is pure, instant energy. The moment his bow touches the strings there’s a stratospheric rush to the deep regions of the brain, touching on a kind of animalistic hysteria that polite conservatoire-heads like Jean Luc Ponty can only dream of.


If energy’s your bag, then “Kau” will do it for you, with its tumbling, headlong forward momentum, propelled by a heavy bass and drum riff that’s always just ahead of the beat, right up to the moment when Brown’s hollering, bar-room sax tips the rhythm section over into a brief, irrepressible burst of joyous 4/4 swing, only to subside back into the off-tempo stumble in time for Bang’s high squeals, slides and scrapes, veering between bluesy runs and avant-garde extensions with mind-fast gusto. This is pure jazz.


Still, there are more reflective moments. On “Oof” and “Big M”, El’Zabar takes out his kalimba—African thumb piano—a primitive construction of wood and steel that instantly takes us down to the riverbank at dawn, rapping with the washer-women. As he plucks out a simple, melodic skeleton we hear the intimate sound of thumbs on metal, hardened skin flicking off the ends of the prongs. Add in El’Zabar’s throaty, heartbroken background moans and roars—and plaintive sax and violin solos sounding like a musical sigh or a shrug of the shoulders—and we have a perfect depiction of sweet sorrow, a desolate, beautiful sound.


And yet the album finishes with joy. “Malachi” is a bluesy ballad, with El’Zabar turning in huge, soulful vocals and a sweetly intuitive flute that just weeps with pure expression. It’s impossible not to feel the love when he sings:


Warm and gentle
Spiritually divine
A rare being
Of the highest mind


When all’s done, even in the face of unavoidable suffering and sorrow, this is a statement of rejoicing and thanks, of gratitude that great leaders sometimes come to walk the earth. These are the giants that don’t run for office. Beyond corruption, above contempt, these are the real leaders. All praise and rejoice—the spirit walks among us. And that, my friends, is about as jazz as you can get.

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