October 15, 2001
KAHIL EL'ZABAR/BILLY BANG
Representing the New York and Chicago tradition of African American improvised music, violinist Billy Bang and multi-percussionist Kahil El'Zabar have been playing in tandem on and off for the past 25 years.
Both obviously enjoy working together because each sees himself as part of a continuing musical lineage. Alabama-born, Manhattan-raised Bang, 53, developed his lyrical, rhythmic and dramatic conception not only by internalizing the innovations of free violinists Leroy Jenkins and Ornette Coleman, but also by accepting the entire hot fiddle lineage typified by Eddie South and especially the iconoclastic joker, Stuff Smith.
Six years younger than Bang, born and raised in the Windy City, El'Zabar is yet another active member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Still, Chicago's musical economics and AACM contacts has meant his workmates have varied from veterans such as bassist Malachi Favors and saxophonists Fred Anderson to youthful street rhythm specialists. Easily able to produce a flowing, neo-bop approach with his trap set, he's also a specialist in exotic rhythms and ethnic percussion following study with African percussion gurus in Ghana a few years ago.
Serious as they are, the percussionist and violinist are also intrinsically theatrical enough to carry out solo showcases as well as dyad dates like these. "Old Time Religion" here offers a clear glimpse of their methods.
The venerable, ante-bellum hymn is transformed by an improvisation that reduces it to its simplest components, while subtly reshaping it. Vocalized by El'Zabar in a slurred mutter that suggests early slave songs, the steady rhythm he pounds out on conga drum alludes to Acid House as much as the Ashanti. Bang, meanwhile, slides out variations on the theme, first arco, then plucked from the strings of his highly distinctive, amplified, ivory-colored fiddle.
When he really gets excited, as on the title tune, the violinist starts repeating the motif, worrying it along with staccato pulls then elongating it with long legato lines. Getting into the top of his instrument's range, he forges a call-and-response section that makes it appear he's trading fours with himself. All the while, the percussionist is being the perfect accompanist, moving the beat along on toms, snare, bass drum and cymbals.
"Song of Myself" on the other hand, comes across as a bare bones violin concerto with drum accents. However further tracks give El'Zabar his head — and hands — and allow him to improvise on the African mbiri, thumb piano and Brazilian birimbau.
Not that everything here is copacetic. Bang and El'Zabar have played together in the percussionist's Ritual Trio or in larger groups, so sometimes they appear to leave too many unfilled spaces. "Love Outside of Dreams", for instance, which initially comes across the way committed beboppers would treat a standard tune, as the drummer time keeps, soon dwindles into schmaltzy violin lines that are only partially redeemed by Bang's coda of lively pizzicato plucks.
Having another partner or two on board would have probably prevented the two from trying absolutely everything on this CD, including some conceptions that obviously don't work. Still one can't complain about what's not there. As an accomplished duo disc, this CD certainly merits your attention.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Spirits Entering 2. 2 Was Now 3. Sweet Irene 4. Love Outside of Dreams 5. The Dream Merchant 6. Song of Myself 7. The Ituri Fantasy 8. Old Time Religion 9. Golden Sea
Personnel: Billy Bang (violin); Kahil El'Zabar (drums, percussion, birimbau, thumb piano)