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Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio Featuring Billy Bang: Live at the River East Art Center

Matt Cibula

Stop Looking For 2005's Best Jazz Album: This Is It.

Billy Bang

Live at the River East Art Center

Display Artist: Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio Featuring Billy Bang
Label: Delmark
US Release Date: 2005-04-26
UK Release Date: 2005-06-27
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There is no doubt in my mind: This is the best jazz album of the year.

On one level, it's just a great live album consisting of four long songs and a kind of sermon from bandleader and percussionist Kahil El'Zabar. These pieces are ambitious and lengthy, deceptively loose and conceptually tight in that awesome AACM way. El'Zabar's band is hot as hell, with violinist Billy Bang joining Yosef Ben Israel on bass and Ari Brown on saxophone; the momentum worked up by these four musicians carries so much weight that even the occasional off-note sounds right. The solos are as deeply soulful as they are technically skillful, but they all feel dedicated to the service of a larger thing being formed one night last December on the River East Arts Center stage.

But on another level, it is a concept record, a tribute to Malachi Favors, the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist who also anchored the Ritual Trio until he died last year. The songs here that refer directly to Favors, "Big M" and "Oof," really bring that home by combining funeral dirge with funeral celebration, but the entire concert is really dedicated to his memory and spirit and inspiration. So if you need a concept to undergird your love of a record, there it is.

As far as what the music sounds like... well, I tried to figure something like that out for "Return of the Lost Tribe". I'm not sure it's any good as writing but it sums up the way things happen on one track, which is also a very generic template for all these pieces:

Begin with a short but complicated and intricate bass solo from fezzed wise-looking Ben Israel, which turns into a two-bar rhythm that he keeps up for the next four minutes. Drunken-sounding melody repeated in sloppy AACM-style unison by sax player Brown and violinist / 2005 breakout star Bang, bandleader / composer El'Zabar on drum kit with understated funk beat. Brown takes first solo, honking and exploring, twisting and turning, not really Coltraning but not really not Coltraning. Ben Israel starts walking and Brown turns into Sonny Rollins. Not sure how much title has to do with song. El'Zabar does the goat-moan thing when he plays. Bang's first solo starts about six-minute mark, he's fascinating in his approach, slicing the air with harsh scrapings and then precise dive-bombing runs, a touch of hoe-down when he essays both solo styles from "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (narrator and Satan, very Manichean). Eventually disappears into ether, then reappears with little squalling notes that come into sharper focus. Finally stops, exhausted, three minutes later, so that El'Zabar can solo, which he does like Art Blakey, accompanying himself with little vocal interjection phrases and laughs at his own legerdemain. Audience seems charmed and appreciative, remind self to watch DVD of show. Pulls back at 10:30 mark so melody can be repeated, this time a little tighter. Final dissolve coda lets Bang and Brown riff a little like they're whispering little secrets to each other, Bang doing a funny little pizzicato deal. Slide into nothingness. Feel like something has been learned.

So yeah, I'm having some trouble figuring out how to describe this music. I love jazz groups led by drummers, because they never forget how to have fun, and the Ritual Trio is a group that knows how to work together and apart. Billy Bang has really come into his own this year (his album Vietnam: Reflections is also going to be on my top 10 list), and his violin solos are both as soft as a morning sunrise and harder than any guitar solos since Eddie Hazel died. And there is really no point in trying to describe how great El'Zabar's monologue is, other than to say that it sticks it to the right people for the right reasons and contains more hope and wonder and wisdom than anything any politician has said in a long time.

It may be too soon to call this one a classic for the ages. All I know is that it sounds to me like one of the greatest jazz albums I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. If any record deserves "best of the year" status, it is this one.


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