Bluiett/ Jackson/ El’Zabar: The Calling

Bluiett/ Jackson/ El'zabar
The Calling
Justin Time

A familiar opening drum pattern, over which a bubbling Hammond organ and a ripe baritone sax greet each other like old friends, brings with it an anticipation that something special is about to occur. When the vocals arrive and the sax moves up a gear that expectancy is rapidly rewarded. If the right DJs get to hear “Open My Eyes” Justin Time have got a club hit on their hands and may have to venture into the vinyl business. The song sounds something like Asha Puthli’s “Right Down Here” played by one of Jack McDuff’s combos — which would do as a definition of Acid Jazz heaven. The company should get on the phone to Gilles Peterson straight away.

So, half way through the first number and The Calling is already a favourite album. Thankfully this is no one-tracker. The whole session pleases, being an adventurous, cheerfully hybrid affair that remains firmly grounded in the blues — my kind of modern jazz, in fact. It is no surprise that a trio that consists of a founder member of the World Saxophone Quartet (Bluiett), David Murray and James Carter’s pianist of choice (Jackson), plus a leading drummer from the Chicago avant-garde scene (El’Zabar) should be a good one. The surprise is how immediate, groove-laden and accessible they prove to be as a combination. This is the friendly face of the experimental end of the scene and should be welcomed with open arms.

If you can tear yourself away from the first tune (it took me a few attempts), the ballad that follows is equally delightful, although very different. Jackson moves to piano for “Sai-Wah” and he and Bluiett make the most of a delicate melodic line — Bluiett hanging close to it while Jackson adds the embellishment. This track conjures up the warmth of the old Ike Quebec re-workings of popular classics — one inch away from a slight corniness but totally captivating. Next up, “When The Elephant Walks” represents yet another shift in gear. Percussionist El’Zabar again scoring on vocals, as the group summon up an African landscape using clarinet, synth and drums. Three magical tracks, three contrasting styles — but obviously the same trio — how do they do that?

And it doesn’t stop there. “Blues for the People” is a hard bop gem. Bluiett takes the baritone through the whole tonal register and adopts an almost rhythm and blues stance in the process. Jackson plays first piano and then organ here — Don Pullen and Charles Earland in one musician. El’Zabar gets to share the limelight, instrumentally this time, with a crisp, little solo that manages to get a rootsy hand-drum sound from the sticks. He then kick-starts “Wake Up and Dream” a quirky jazz-funk piece which finds Bluiett and Jackson in a light, free-flowing mood. A cut that has not a care in the world, it skips along merrily. More serious is “Ask and You Shall Find”, a long, meditative mini-suite which has definite Zen leanings. The sounds are exotic in the best sense.It is not easy to identify each source, such is the strangeness of the arrangement. Kalimba and wooden flute are mostly responsible, I think. Anyway, the effect is deeply haunting and not at all chill-out, hippy-drippy.

More mood swings and we are into a roadhouse blues. “Black Danube aka the Calling” is at first down-home and dirty, with suitably greasy sax riffs, then goes berserk as the piano breaks free from all constraints. Exhilarating stuff. Back to vocals on “We Are”, which is uptempo and has a flavour of Coltrane circa “sheets of sound” era. A good ensemble piece but Bluiett is outstanding and in magisterial form. “Odd Pocket” starts almost as a mambo — spiced and very hot — and proceeds to explore the oddness of the title. An cascading synth and a sprightly baritone turn everything upside down while the drummer holds the road, just. Within each of these numbers there is free blowing aplenty and all the dissonance of the avant-garde.However, because this is always allied to a strong rhythmic drive, and one or other of jazz’s many “deep structures”, the experience is never a chore. Herein lies the key to the group’s charm — fresh looks at the basic forms — all executed with confidence and considerable skill. The last work-out revisits the organ blues and provides a fitting finale, even if it leaves the suspicion that the ideas are finally running out of steam.

All in all this is a happy journey through the highways and byways of modern musical forms. That it never seems scrappy is due to the sheer musicality of the participants. Veteran Hamiet Bluiett is surely the current leading exponent of that difficult instrument, the baritone saxophone. Always the great crowd-pleaser of the World Sax Quartet, he has seen it all done it all — as far as contemporary jazz goes. Here he is relaxed and having fun. Canadian born, New York residing, D.D.Jackson is a rising star, on the edge of being a major figure both as player and composer. He brings a youthful urgency to the record and can switch modes at will. Kahil El’Zabar is the least known of the three but will not remain so for long if he keeps putting in performances like this one. It is a genuine trio as each member shares solo and compositional duties. Each one excels on more than one instrument and each is in complete creative sympathy with the others. A better balanced trio would be hard to imagine.

This is yet another feather in Justin Time’s cap. They are fast becoming a much talked about label. I notice that their recent Fontella Bass release is getting support from the ultra-fussy Modern Soul crowd. This recording should provoke the same reaction from the leftfield jazz posse. The only drawback I can find with The Calling is that it may prove expensive. When you hear playing this good, and music this rich and varied, you will want to go out and buy everything else that has these guys’ names associated with it. You have been warned.