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Kahil El'Zabar Quartet: What It Is!

Troy Collins By

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Since the early 1980s percussionist Kahil El'Zabar has led numerous dates as a leader, with much of his work issued by Chicago's Delmark Records. Some of his most impressive efforts for the label have featured collaborations with renowned artists, including New Thing-era luminaries such as Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, as well as peers like Ernest Dawkins, David Murray and the late Billy Bang. What It Is! covers relatively new territory though, with the AACM veteran serving as the leader of a youthful quartet comprised of former students.

An understudy of fellow Chicago-based tenor saxophonists Von Freeman and Ari Brown, Kevin Nabors lends soulful assurance and simmering intensity to the proceedings. Junius Paul, who has recorded with Dawkins and Corey Wilkes, underscores the leader's myriad detours with nimble bass lines, but it is Justin Dillard who proves most versatile. Performing on piano, Hammond B3 organ and Fender Rhodes, Dillard's kaleidoscopic palette accentuates the album's manifold styles in a way rarely heard on El'Zabar's previous releases.

The eclectic session fully embraces the AACM's credo of "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future" with its all-inclusive exploration of multiple genres, ranging from the progressive soul jazz groove of the infectious opener "The Nature Of" to the bold impressionism of "Song of Myself." The latter spotlights Dillard's laudable skills on the B3, where he conjures a striking array of psychedelic effects reminiscent of the great Larry Young. The quartet's moving interpretation of John Coltrane's "Central Park West" is similarly bolstered by Dillard's evocative organ flourishes and the leader's primal African hand drumming, reinventing the familiar ballad as a gospel-tinged swinger.

A faithful rendition of "Impressions" hews too close to Coltrane's original however. Nabors and Dillard fulfill their roles with requisite fervor, yet their burgeoning skills are heard to better effect on new material—although even the vivacious set closer "Kari" reveals the pervasive influence of Coltrane's Classic Quartet. On the mesmerizing title track, the foursome weaves a singularly hypnotic mantra devoid of such antecedents, highlighted by luminous Fender Rhodes and exotic African percussion. The kalimba-driven meditation "From The Heart" is equally arresting, a mysterious tone poem that showcases the quartet's subtly expressive capabilities, recalling the leader's Afro-centric Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

Whether navigating funky R&B, modal post-bop or expressionistic abstraction, El'Zabar's young sidemen invest their efforts with palpable conviction, imparting even textbook extrapolations with heartfelt urgency. Emboldened by El'Zabar's distinctive trap-set work, hand drumming and kalimba variations, What It Is! lays the groundwork for future endeavors, suggesting potentially great things to come from the leader's nascent protégés.

Track Listing: The Nature Of; Impressions; What It Is!; Song of Myself; Central Park West; From The Heart; Kari.

Personnel: Kahil El'Zabar: drums, African earth drum, kalimba; Kevin Nabors: tenor saxophone; Justin Dillard: piano, Hammond B3 organ, Fender Rhodes; Junius Paul: bass.

Title: What It Is! | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Delmark Records

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