As a ritual experience, music can be amazingly moving. That's a deep concept that American jazz players long ago absorbed from the traditions of West Africa. (Haiti and Cuba lie at the epicenter of this movement within the Western Hemisphere; but that's an entirely different tangent.) Free jazz veterans Kahil El'Zabar and Billy Bang improvise together on the drums and violin, respectively, on Spirits Entering. This recording would poorly be described as a "conversation"... having played together off and on for 25 years, these two musicians have come to develop an intuitive sense for each other's ideas and feelings. They play as one to make possible a ritual music with deep musical and extra-musical consequences. It's ironic that such a vital music be captured on aluminum. No fool would presume that ceremonial music deserves to cloak its visual, corporeal, and incantational elements.
Just as the physical pulse of El'Zabar's drumming (as on "Old Time Religion") immediately strikes one with an opportunity to dance, Bang's elastic violin melodies offer an opportunity for song. (As also happens on "Old Time Religion," oddly enough.)
El'Zabar is at his best on Spirits Entering (which says a lot). His instrumental combination mostly includes hand-held percussion, traditional drums from the African diaspora, and the usual miscellanea. At moments he ventures squarely into the melodic realm (especially when he plays the thumb piano), but for the most part he nurtures quiet energy on the drums. El'Zabar plays with wisdom: not aiming for a new level of virtuosity, but focusing on the act of co-creation. He knows when to hold back, when to apply the pepper, and when to break free. Indeed, it's hard to separate his voice from Bang's.
Billy Bang has taken the (hardly idiomatic) jazz violin and defined a deeply personal sound, relying on bowed melodies and a pinch of altered techniques here and there where appropriate. His voice on Spirits Entering is restrained, but in a deliberate and focused manner. The melody fairly leaps out at you on the opener, "Spirits Entering" or the similarly pressing "Golden Sea." No fancy show here. But that would, of course, be completely out of place in this ritual setting.
As John Miller Chernoff reflected in his book African Rhythm, African Sensibility, the secret of the ritual in West African drumming is to make the music cool. That's as accurate a description as you're likely going to come across for Spirits Entering. But don't worry, it's a heavy kind of cool.
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