Despite more domestic releases in the last decade than ever before in his career, and a higher profile after playing with the likes of Hamiet Bluiett and DD Jackson, percussionist and composer Kahil El'Zabar remains one of the best kept secrets in the Midwest. There are a few possible (if superficial) reasons: the strong Africanism embraced by much of Chicago's AACM (where El'Zabar got his start) doesn't always play in New York; his simple repeated-and-inverted themes are, admittedly, an acquired taste; and, as is often bemoaned in the Windy City, you don't make it in New York by staying in Illinois. The best known names to come out of the AACM (Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Muhal Richard Abrams) are all Chicago ex-pats. Whatever the case, it's a shame, because El'Zabar is, quite simply, one of the best jazz drummers working today. Equally versed on trap set and large African drums (what he calls "earth drums"), he also plays a melodic thumb piano and can lay down a vocal groove that connects the dots between Billy Strayhorn and Stevie Wonder.
Strong words, no doubt, but El'Zabar is as consistently strong a player as you could ask for. His work with Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors, violinist Billy Bang and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble are all not to be missed. But his strongest musical partnership has always been with tenor titan David Murray (see especially the excellent Golden Sea on Sound Aspects). Murray knows how to winnow within and wrap his horn around El'Zabar's percussionistic heads.
On Love Outside of Dreams (and let it be said that, as with the aforementioned Mr. Wonder, El'Zabar's word choice and occasional lyrics are not for those made squeamish by positivity), Murray and El'Zabar are joined by the late great Fred Hopkins in a 1997 set. Why Delmark allowed this to languish on the shelves for five years is a mystery - it's one of El'Zabar's finest releases in recent memory. There isn't a lot of new material - El'Zabar isn't bashful about recycling themes - but the songs are simple enough to inspire new life every time they're played.
His work with Hamiet Bluiett and DD Jackson has been relatively restrained, but Chicagoans know Kahil can rock the house. Love Outside of Dreams shows the power that is only he.
This review first appeared in the November 2002 issue of All About Jazz: New York .