On this, their fifth album for Delmark, the Ritual Trio sticks to the formula that has served them well on past outings for the label, that of welcoming a legendary guest star into the fold. This time around Pharoah Sanders occupies the guest chair and his presence affects a wonderful series of alchemical changes both in terms of group dynamics and sound. Sanders obviously arrived at the studio ready to blow and El’Zabar’s arrangements allow him ample to do just that. Sadly the program suffers from a problem similar to the one that characterized the Trio’s meeting with Shepp (Delmark album #4 from the group, for those who are counting). In a setting such as this with two formidable tenors in the frontline the desire to hear both blow together becomes acute in the extreme. But just as on the Shepp date Brown for some strange reason is relegated mainly to keyboard chores. His work on the ivories is by no means disappointing, as his beautiful turn on “Autumn Leaves” emphatically asserts, but again there’s the nagging temptation of hearing the tenors in tandem that is sorely under realized.
The quartet opens with “Ka-Real” a song staple from the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (one of El’Zabar’s other aggregations) penned by trombonist Joseph Bowie. The melodic lucidity of the piece is perfect fodder for Sanders’ flowing lyricism and legendary his tenor pours forth over the lushly rendered melodic line lapping against Brown’s smooth comping and El’Zabar’s restrained traps play. Later Sanders’ coarsens his emotive exclamations and lets fly with a volley of overblown ecstatic cries. A cascading solo from Brown follows before an intoxicating ensemble interlude and close.
“Africanos/Latinos” an Afro-Cuban colored sound poem, offers something unexpected as Brown’s sparse chords dance around El’Zabar’s fluid hand percussion and set up a spacious underpinning for Sandoval’s sultry spoken words. Dwelling mainly in the shadowy corners Sanders’ blows exiguous lines that add further the smoky, soulful flavor of the tune. “Miles Mode” finally affords an opportunity to hear the two tenors in action and the tumbling succession of solos from first Sanders, then Brown, reaffirm expectation. But rather than satiating these tastes the thirst for more unquenched. One consolation is the prominence of El’Zabar’s African percussion on “Pharaoh’s Song.” El’Zabar’s mbira and djembe offer some of most hauntingly exquisite sounds in improvised music and their dulcet tones are a prominent factor alongside a beautifully realized chant and the alternating horns of Sanders (tenor) and Brown (soprano).
Far from being formulaic in a negative sense El’Zabar’s preferred rubric for the Ritual Trio in recent years has resulted in some of the most stimulating music of his career. This disc, while at times adhering a little to closely to the itinerary of past projects continues the successful streak substantiated by these earlier efforts. Thankfully it also demonstrates conclusively that Sanders retirement is still a long way off.