If You Believe…
8th Harmonic Breakdown 8THHB 80004

Love Outside of Dreams
Delmark DG-541

Leading two regular bands obviously isn’t enough for Chicago-based multi-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. Not only has he written poetry and film scores, taught at nearby universities and initiated arts presentations, but he’s also put together a series of ad-hoc musical groups.

Besides his regularly constituted Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (EHE) and Ritual Trio, he also organized the Bright Moments combo filled with Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians veterans and recorded exciting projects with 1960s tenor masters like Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. Now these CDs showcase him in two more bands. Tri-Factor is a regularly constituted co-op trio, filled out by baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and violinist Billy Bang. The other combo disc is more of bittersweet affair. A reunion between El’Zabar and a former duo partner, extensively recorded tenor saxophonist David Murray, it’s also the final recording session for bassist Fred Hopkins, who died at 51 of heart and liver disease a few months after the session.

Along with Hamid Drake, El’Zabar is part of the Chicago percussion tradition that encompasses mastery of many more drums than the standard trap kit. As a matter of fact, his most impressive rhythmic thrust comes on African hand drum or kalimba. Connect the Africanisms suggested by those instruments and his vocals to a stringed instrument and a horn and you get the basic thrust of both these discs.

Best-known for his tenure in the Wold Saxophone Quartet, which also includes Murray, Bluiett’s experience encompasses St. Louis’ Black Artists Group (BAG), R&B gigs and three years with bassist Charles Mingus. Most distinctive of modern violinists Harlem-raised Bang was a founding member of another collective, The String Trio Of New York. Since the 1980s he has played in variety of contexts from modern classical, to straightahead, to outside Energy music with the likes of tenor man Frank Lowe and bassist William Parker.

IF YOU BELIVE… gets it strength from the tension that must be resolved among Bang’s off-centre formalism, Bluiett’s blues roots and El’Zabar, whose rhythms may suggest African rain forests, but whose singing and lyrics reference sanctified gospel. This push-and-pull can most easily be heard on the first and final tracks. A churchy, hand clapper, the title track works up from an echoing vocal refrain courtesy of the percussionist and roadhouse honks from Bluiett’s axe. Bang is smack dab in the middle, ornamenting sax lines with string sweeps or scratching out an approximation of one-string African fiddles Elsewhere, “Urban Bush People”, offers an El’Zabar vocalized chant that is half work song and half-enraged Gil Scott-Heron. Driven by the a repetitive sax riff and hand percussion, with everyone humming the soulful melody, the percussionist sings about “living in the streets of concrete” where “if we don’t start screaming all of our children will be gone”.

Cast in the form of moderato lullabies, numbers, such as “Baby K For Kasan” and “San San For Kasan” spread a warm blanket of kalimba notes over the melodies, with digit power giving the thumb piano the sound and texture of a marimba. Here the overlay of baritone lines and fiddle ornamentation helps to add warm and fuzzies to the tune.

Not that the three have lost their edge however. Bluiett’s “Wide Open Country Style” owes a lot more to Art Blakey than bluesman Blind Blake and is merely one step removed from hard bop. Additionally, the saxman’s ability to create freakish high notes in altissimo range followed by mining shaft deep swoops call to mind early R&B honkers who elaborated on “The Hucklebuck”.

Finally there’s “It Went Somewhere Else”, a free jazz blow out, reminiscent of 1960s Energy Music, with El’Zabar feeding press rolls and bass accents to the others from his kit; Bang snaking up and down the strings; and Bluiett, reverting to his BAG days, speedily screeching in both registers.

Partnering with men whose experience ranged from the formal — Hopkins’ membership in Air, Murray’s Octets and big bands — to the free — the bassist’s duo with drummer Steve McCall, Murray’s duos with El’Zabar or pianist Dave Burrell — the percussionist on LOVE .. appeared to be ready for anything. Armed with a set of his original tunes, some of which had been recorded in duo with Murray or by the EHE, the idea seems to be to throw everything up in the air and see what developed.

For a start, though, listeners shouldn’t hear this session as some sort of Hopkins memorial disc. Busy as only a prodigal (musical) son can be in his hometown, the bassist certainly didn’t figure this would be his final session. His solid bass line can be heard throughout, but he’s not really featured. In fact, there are times he lays out completely or can’t be heard over the clamor of the more powerful axes.

With the percussionist more often behind the kit than not, El’Zabar plays a series of shuffles, flams and paradiddles to back up Murray’s swaggering tenor saxophone forays and mournful bass clarinet. Although only one number definitely references Duke Ellington, with “Take The A Train” quotes, the saxist appears to be in a ducal mode. On that tune he spears enough high notes to have made Ellington’s coloratura trumpet specialist Cat Anderson jealous and elsewhere his throbbing inflections recall Paul Gonsalves, whose tenor tonalities with the Duke were as likely to suggest R&B and jump bands as Coleman Hawkins or Chu Berry. On “Nia”, an EHE favorite, he comes up with enough overblown screeches, trills and honks show how much New Thing tenorists took from Gonsalves’ sound as well as from the more expected Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane influences. On other tunes, Murray’s reed-biting saxophone forays and El’Zabar’s thumb piano lines produce enough reverberations from two acoustic instruments to make proponents of electronica seem foolish in their reliance on wires and dials.

When he’s not biting off arpeggios on his horn(s), Murray also vocalizes along with El’Zabar, most notably on his own “Song For The New South Africa”. The two do well as rhythm singers, but neither Luther Vandross nor Usher should lose any sleep over their crooning. Lyrics awash with the sentiments of peace and love figure strongly in the final tune, which is also the title of Murray-El’Zabar duo disc. Although he uses a lot of slap tonguing and key pops, Murray’s bass clarinet solos also have a spiritual quality here, amplified by the percussionists unbroken hand drumming and call-and-response vocals.

With a Pentecostal preacher’s vocal delivery and the large licorice stick providing the chorus, the power of the piece really revolves around Hopkins’ wide-sweeping bass work. Probably his most assured playing on the CD, it’s good to know that the bassman went out on a strong note the last time he entered the recording studio.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: If: 1. If You Believe 2. The Sequence of our Hearts 3. Dark Silhouette 4. Without Blame 5. Baby K For Kasan 6. Wide Open Country Style 7. San San For Kasan 8. It Went Somewhere Else Now 9. Internal Offerings 10. Urban Bush People

Personnel: If: Hamiet Bluiett (baritone saxophone, bamboo flute); Billy Bang (violin); Kahil El’Zabar (drums, hand drums, kalimba, bellaphon, vocals)

Track Listing: Love: 1. Love Outside of Dreams 2. Song for a New South Africa 3. Song of Myself 4. Nia 5. Meditation for the Celestial Warriors 6. The Ebulllient Duke 7. Fred 8. One Wold Family

Personnel: Love: David Murray (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Fred Hopkins (bass); Kahil El’Zabar (drums, African drums, thumb piano)