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

Derek Taylor By

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The Art Ensemble of Chicago wasn't the only band to lose its anchor when Malachi Favors passed away in early '03. The bassist's other outlet, Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio also found itself rudderless. Rather than lament the loss at length, El'Zabar conscripted Yosef Ben Israel, another longtime colleague, to fill the slot. Taped at one of the percussionist's frequent loft events, multidisciplinary celebrations that incorporate painters, DJs, and dancers and encourage audience interaction, this set is also a reunion of sorts. Violinist Billy Bang returns to the ranks and picks up where he left off on Big Cliff, his last recording with the band. His fit with saxophonist Ari Brown is better this time out. Where the earlier album was sometimes a contest of thrilling collisions, years later the two friends till a wider plot of common soil.

El'Zabar's kalimba circles a Maypole tonal center before hatching the organic vamp that will fuel the nearly nineteen-minute piece. Bang's brittle pizzicato braids with the leader's luminous rhythmic clusters while Israel fashions a bottom-filling ostinato. Brown blows a sparse, soulfully deliberate solo atop the undulating Africanized beat. All of the instruments are recorded hot, especially Bang's violin. Added amplification transforms his torquing arco lines into flaming friction-fed arrows. Abandoning earlier nuance, he ramps up the emotion quotient to reach a typically dizzying peak. El'Zabar's grunts and moans add to the liturgical demeanor as does his scintillating kalimba improvisation, a swirling cloud of tonal fireflies that lights the way to an ensemble summation.

Subsequent band introductions get a bit bogged down with superlatives like "legendary and "magnificent assigned to the members. "Return of the Lost Tribe highlights El'Zabar's habit of recycling numbers. This particular tune is lifted from the uneven of the album of the same name also on Delmark. Israel's corpulent bass carves a booming preface and El'Zabar, at drum kit, stamps a blunt, snare-weighted cadence. Tenor and violin slide somewhat clumsily through the lumpy head. Brown's solo rights the keel in an outpouring of burnished tenor fervor. But less rewarding statements from Bang and the leader undermine the advance, the former wallowing in surprisingly jejune saw-toothed histrionics.

Sandwiched between the final two tracks, the metaphysical pep talk "Be Exciting is a shade much, but the impassioned earnestness of El'Zabar's advice remains palpable. "Where Do You Want to Go benefits from a virile hand percussion/bass rhythm and more hot-blooded tenor from Brown. "Oof typifies the heavy drift of its title, opening elegiac only to build a slow boil groove that survives some simplistic Favors-centric sermonizing at the close. Both support the theory of El'Zabar's primacy with palms and fingertips over sticks.

The booklet advertises an impending studio effort by the same band, tagged with a more explicitly dedicatory title to Favors. Like this live set, it will probably travel familiar territory, with at least one number recycled. But fans of the earthy AACM-ish equivalent of Great Black Music should still find plenty of pleasing loam to plant their ears in on both.


Track Listing: Big M; Return of the Lost Tribe; Where Do You Want to Go?; Be Exciting (Kahil Testifies); Oof

Personnel: Kahil El

Title: Live at the River East Art Center | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Delmark Records


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