Tells Untold
Hopscotch Records HOP30

We Is
Delmark DE-557

Reeds and miscellaneous instruments, especially percussion, figure in these improv/roots duo sessions. Multi-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar from Chicago is as expert in relating African rhythmic variations to jazz as New York multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore is in adapting temporal Black timbres to improvisations.

Complementing each man’s beat sophistication is, in El’Zabar’s case the tenor saxophone and bass clarinet of Paris resident David Murray, while Cooper-Moore’s partner is Israeli-born Assif Tsahar, whose proficiency on Murray’s chosen instruments extends to additional skills playing muzmar or Arabic oboe, acoustic guitar and thumb piano. Here El’Zabar also offers variations on the batà and thumb piano as well as the regular traps set, while on TELLS UNTOLD, Moore mixes virtuosity on ethnic instruments like the harp, shofar, deedly-bo and mouth-bow with outings on flute, synthesizer and others.

A live session, the five tracks on WE IS take elements from both the jazz and ethnic parts of the two world travelers’ identities. Overall the mood is groove-based and bluesy. No less rhythmically formidable, the other CD is preeminently a studio session, with audio mixing overdubbing and sampling utilized to allow each of the players to perform on more than one of his instruments if he feels the track calls for it. In the end this gives TELLS UNTOLD a wider range of moods than WE IS.

Not that anything could have matched the unbridled enthusiasm with which El’Zabar and Murray’s live performance was greeted. Over the course of five extended compositions, they start in the pocket and don’t quit until they play an encore. Along the way Murray varies his output from reed-shredding altissimo squeals to pulsating honks and smears. Considering he has recorded in every context, from near-R&B to arranged balladic excursions to experimental blowouts to collaborations with African griots, the transitions are seamless and his confidence is unshakable.

As much a showman as a shaman – Cooper-Moore shares this trait – El’Zabar, who studied drumming in Africa and is a longtime Association for the Advancement of Creative Music member, revels in versatility. While pounding what sound like batà and djembe drums, creating single strokes and double pulses, he vocalizes. Muttered and bellowed, the result takes in aspects of tribal chants, work songs, Calypso word play, R&B and, on “One World Family” folksy affirmation.

Singing in a pleasant tenor voice, his bell shaking and tambourine rattling add a populist tinge to Murray’s bass clarinet playing, which exploits all the instrument’s registers to comment on the tune and dialogue with the singer. Building his solos out of tongue slaps, tongue stops and key percussion, the reedist squeals, squeaks, sweeps and trills on one hand and lets loose with bottom-pressured arpeggios at another time.

Out-and-out experimentation appears on the title tune with El’Zabar on the traps set feeding ruffs, flams and bounces to the saxman. Proving he can still get worked up to a near ecstatic state in the right circumstances, Murray spins harsh cadences and swooping arpeggios, and sails into false registers. Much of the time he spins out irregular variations that sound both the notes and their vibrated nodes as he plays.

The musicians’ many identities are on show on “Blues Affirmation”, a more than 18-minute Africanized blues. Following a thumb piano intro and the percussionist scat singing, Murray enters as a breathy Ben Webster clone but soon snorts out harsh, guttural snarls and treetop squeals. Vocalizing as if John Lee Hooker had grown up in rural Mali, El’Zabar and the saxophonist begin trading vocal-and-instrument riffs with marimba-like resonation on naturally amplified wooden keys the only backing. Climax is the vocalist growling and squeezing half-expressed accents from his throat as the underlay of thinning tenor sax obbligatos smooth out to reference the Swing era reed playing first introduced at the top.

No slouch when it comes to playing his tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Tsahar also takes on many persona on TELLS UNTOLD’s nine tracks. Studio technology allows him to play two or more of his instruments at the same time. Adding to all this, and often double tracked as well, is Cooper-Moore whose collection of ethnic, vernacular, legit and hand-made instruments provides all the extra textures you could want.

Pastoral, finger picking acoustic guitar lines played by Tsahar, matched with recital-quality flute from Cooper-Moore begin the CD’s almost 13½-minute title track. Soon enough though, the sounds of a breathy bass clarinet (Tsahar) and drums (Cooper-Moore) are also heard, succeeded by wiggling trills from the tenor, this time matched with rattles (Cooper-Moore) and thumb piano (Tsahar). Midway through, the reedist starts testifying on the muzmar or Arabic oboe until bop drumming and snorting saxophone tones reappear to face off, match up, fade and rise. Is this a comment on the connection between Equatorial Africa, the Maghreb and American improv? Finally, the concentrated twanging of the single string deedly-bo is superseded by a reprise of the initial saxophone line.

This sort of multi-instrumentation, enhanced by audio technology, is featured on most other tracks. Although an outing like “The Hunt’”, except for a bit of thumb piano at the beginning and bell ringing at the end, is mostly a tenor-drums duo. It proves that these players can be as passionate and New-Thingy as Murray and El’Zabar if they wish.

More characteristic are pieces like “Oracles” and “The Procession”, which display Cooper-Moore’s carpenter’s shed full of obscure and original instruments to best advantage.

“Oracles” features either the deedly-bo or the mouth-bow being stretched like a gigantic elastic band, produces a scouring tone that’s both elastic and abrasive. On top of this Tsahar, on tenor, expels distinctive multiphonics, breaking them apart and combing them with the latex lacerations for a perfect union of experimental and primitive tones.

In contrast, “The Procession” features a bouncy march-like tempo that suggests market day in an African village. Yet here the rhythmic component doesn’t just arise from Cooper-Moore’s drums, harp and deedly-bo. Pushing aside a flute-thumb piano counter melody, the reedist’s concentrated squeaks and squeals show that this sort of extended technique can have a rhythmic as well an abrasive function.

Whether your interest is in traditional groove-oriented modernism or multi-faceted primitivism extended with technology, you’ll find much to like in both of these discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: We: 1. Groove Allure 2. We Is 3. Blues Affirmation 4. One World Family 5. Sweet Meat

Personnel: We: David Murray (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Kahil El’Zabar (drums, bells, batà, djembe, thumb piano and other percussion plus vocals)

Track Listing: Tells: 1. The Eight 2. Tribes Gathering 3. Oracles 4. The Hunt 5.Tells Untold 6. Deviations 7. Forlorn 8. Another World Another Time 9. The Procession

Personnel: Tells: Assif Tsahar (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, acoustic guitar, muzmar and thumb piano); Cooper-Moore (harp, ashimba xylophone, drums, flute, deedly-bo, mouth-bow, twiner, shofar, synthesizer and the bell)