Kahil El'Zabar and his numerous musical collaborations have a majesty of quiet determinism, a lyrical sense of space, and a consummate sound.
El'Zabar's Ritual Trio has been around for a number of years, and his association with violinist Billy Bang, this recording's special guest, goes back to the days when they were high school b-ballers. But the core trio of El'Zabar on percussion (he's also a proponent of the kalimba as a complete instrument), overlooked tenor master Ari Brown, and bassist Yosef Ben Israel is a pure musical amalgamation of intent and function. Live At The River East Art Center
is Israel's first appearance on record as part of this trio, attempting to fill the hole left here (and in so many other groups) with the passing of Malachi Favors; he does so admirably.
Combining elements of jazz, gospel, R&B, African music, and anything else these three players have soaked up over the years, the music quietly burns with an intense heat. And with the addition of Bang's electric violin, the sonorities of the group become even more unique. He provides an atonal voice that soars freely above the others but is always tethered to what his hosts are moving towards.
Dedicating this period of his life to Favors and his legacy, El'Zabar bookends this live document with dedications. On the opening "Big M," El'Zabar's kalimba playing is magical; the marimba-like tones are warm and vibrant, contrasting with Israel's deep, resonating sound. Ari Brown eases himself into the groove and all three contribute to a sound with deep roots and meaning, imbued with a sense of groove and swing that begs one to move with the music. Bang enters nearly halfway through the journey and delivers a stunning solo that sways with their sound.
This is a live recording with great depth of sound and clarityon headphones, some of the chatter from the crowd will have you looking over your shoulderbut as with many live recordings, not everything translates well. El'Zabar's vocalizing integrates succesfully with the music, complementing what is happening rhythmically. His gravelly voice often sounding akin to a preacher in his pulpit. And his conviction is whole, even when it doesn't work entirely, as in the final minutes of "OOF." On this piece named for Favors' resonant tone, El'Zabar chants the late bassist's name and begins to riff with it. When you're involved with the music, this works; however, if you find yourself detached, you'll wonder what he is doing.
Ultimately, the only time El'Zabar truly missteps is during his speech "Be Exciting," where good advice rendered in the moment sounds contrived in retrospect, as well meant as it was. Those four minutes aside, this is an album of beautifully engaging music that allows for joyous deep listening and bodily movement. Everyone, particularly Bang, sounds inspired, and this disc ought to whet appetites for the group's next Delmark release, Big M, A Tribute to Malachi Favors
, recorded the same week.