Earshot Aural Snapshots: 2006 Earshot Jazz Festival, Seattle, October 27-30
Ritual Trio with Billy Bang
On the Boards
Sunday, October 29
Multi-instrumentalist Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio has one foot in a gutbucket and the other on a cloud. It's a group that knows you can shake your booty without disengaging your brain. They can lay down an infectious groove without getting stuck in a rut. Their knack for layering adventurous solos on top of monstrous head-bobbing rhythms is unmatched. It can be argued that "great" jazz always builds on the bedrock of the blues. Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future (to borrow the AEC's phrase) also utilizes traditions from the entire African diaspora as its foundation.
Urban Bush People opened the concert with El'Zabar playing his hugely resonant handmade "earth drum" and ankle bells, his soulful vocal spurred on by rhythmically ingenious pizzicato violin from special guest Billy Bang and the testifying baritone saxophone of Hamiet Bluiett.
Bluiett replaced the ailing Ari Brown, the trio's regular saxophonist. "Hey, all you urban bush people, don't get stuck in a rut... don't let these conservative times mess up your mind... runnin' in the streets, made of concrete... no love... talking heads all over the place... don't get stuck in these boring ruts." It didn't take long for Bang and Bluiett to warm up, and their solos were positively volcanic, Bluiett's wailing falsetto-register interjections spurring Bang on during the violinist's vigorous spot.
El'Zabar switched to the trap set for Bang's "Spirits Entering." The spirits definitely entered, and they were rambunctious spirits indeed. Bang's violin solo was an incendiary gallop through free-bop and beyond, intensely focused yet wildly exploratory. Bluiett utilized the baritone's full range in his solo, from gut-shaking low register wallops to the whistling banshee ultra-high register sheets of sound of which he's such a master.
Bassist Yosef Ben Israel brought us back to earth with his turn in the spotlight, his plangent, fat, richly rounded sound and feet-firmly-planted sense of tempo and rhythm(s) unshakeable and centered. El'Zabar's unaccompanied drum solo built excitement without losing the pulse; one could always hear the piece's form through the elaborate embroideries and complex cross-rhythms.
El'Zabar spoke of his AACM mentor, Malachi Favors Maghostut, to introduce "Oof," which began with El'Zabar's thumb piano accompanied only by his ankle bells. After he set the tempo, bass, then violin, then baritone entered in turn. There was a massively bluesy baritone solo, the latter portion unaccompanied, that pushed the outer limits without leaving the roadhouse.
Bang's manic violin solo included some beautifully controlled use of the ricochet bowing technique, which segued to a superb bass solo, El'Zabar's ankle bells getting softer and softer as it progressed, andwith the dynamic level backed off several notchesan incredibly transformational thumb piano solo. The spiritual depth and rhythmic power of El'Zabar's playing here was dazzling; he built the dynamics back up gradually as the solo progressed, and then brought them downway downfor the very soft ending.
In over 30 years of attending concerts there are only a handful in memory, reaching right down to the energy seat of emotion, that are on a level with these few minutes. "I'm interested in energy," bassist Buell Neidlinger once said, "I love the feeling of being in a room and playing music with guys that are making energy instead of just sound."