The BJE trio lies comfortably at the intersection between jazz, tribal music, blues, and gospel. In its original form as BJT (with Senegalese percussionist Mor Thiam), this trio defined and occupied a niche. The new reincarnation continues to expand that sound. By distilling modern jazz and consciously returning to the roots of the tradition, these players sidestep the pedantic intellectualism that unfortunately dominates much of today's improvised music.
That's not to say that The Calling is not a serious endeavor. These three players have plenty of experience with the formal improvised music tradition. Bluiett almost singlehandedly raised the baritone saxophone from an instrumental novelty to a full-fledged equal in jazz. His 25 years of experience with the World Saxophone Quartet, along with tenure in baritone saxophone groups from the '70s and '90s, document the power of his conception.
D.D. Jackson rose to prominence with two brilliant piano trio records in the mid-'90s (Peace-Song and Rhythm-Dance), and has since laid down a considerable discography. Newcomer Kahil El'Zabar fits naturally into the drummer's seat and propels the group forward. El'Zabar launched his career in jazz percussion in Chicago in the '70s, and he has emerged as a leading standard-bearer for the cause of the expanded percussion set (with hand drums serving alongside the regular kit, and African rhythmic concepts uniting with the more traditional jazz elements from swing and the blues). Each member of this trio has spent time going "out"exploring the broadest dimensions of avant garde improvisation.
Enough about that. On The Calling, these three players engage in a spirited conversation that relies upon call-and-response, interlocking rhythms, and the uplifting energy of Black church music. The opener, "Open My Eyes," begins with a catchy baritone melody over a danceable rhythm, then transitions into El'Zabar's majestic vocal tribute to spiritual revelation. Bluiett steps forward, trading gestures with the vocalist. Meanwhile, Jackson keeps up a lilting groove on the organ. "Ask and You Shall Find" documents a lighter and more airy sound: Bluiett plaintively whispers on the wooden flute, while Jackson cries out with some starkly lifelike cries on the keys and El'Zabar maintains dynamic counterpoint on the kalimba. Tribal in the extreme.
The BJE trio goes on to ply blues and funk, with the eruption of the title track into down-n-dirty hoots and hollers. The drummer's amazing flexibility shines here, as he colors the familiar funk beat with West African rhythmic variation. And Jackson's emergence into the foreground underscores his ability to let looseafter playing his usual role as harmonic guardian and protector of the groove. On the aptly named "Odd Pocket," El'Zabar lays out a colorful 7-beat meter for the trio to explore through interactive improvisation.
The appeal of The Calling is primarily visceral and emotive. Its deceptive simplicity underscores the importance of unity, authenticity, and groundedness. Within this context, the recording is a total and complete success.
Personnel: Bluiett: baritone saxophone, wooden flute, contra-alto clarinet; D.D. Jackson: acoustic piano, organ, bass synth, keys; Kahil El'Zabar: drums, percussion, bells, kalimba, and vocals.