Kahil El’Zabar’s Infinity Orchestra

Transmigration
Delmark DE 576

Groove is the one word you associate with most of the endeavors of Kahil El’Zabar. Yet while the Chicago-based percussionist has had past experience playing R&B and African music, his rhythmic mobilization is overt, but never simplistic. That’s because as a long-time member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he has also absorbed the concepts of such cerebral thinkers as pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Taken in their entirety therefore, the sounds of El’Zabar’s many bands meld elements of both impulses. What results is a POMO variation that unites the sacred and the secular, a concept which has long characterized Black Vernacular Music.

All that said the instrumental make-up of these two fine live CDs couldn’t be more different. Hot’N’Heavy, for instance, is the newest variant of the drummer’s 30-year-old Ethic Heritage Ensemble (EHE). Usually consisting of two horns plus El’Zabar’s percussion, this session not only adds new brassman Corey Wilkes – a trumpeter and flugelhornist who is now also a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago – but is one of those occasions when a chordal instrumental – Fareed Haque’s guitar –carries part of load. Haque, who leads his own fusion group, has played on-and-off with the EHE since the late 1990s. That’s around the period when alto and tenor saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, leader of the New Horizons Ensemble, also became the band’s sole reed player.

If this, the first CD recorded in El’Zabar’s own Chicago loft space goes down like a smooth American burgundy, then Transmigration can be compared to the effect of a large quantity of a much different carefully fermented vintage. Recorded in Bordeaux, France the year before Hot’N’Heavy, it features that city’s 39-piece Infinity Orchestra running through five El’Zabar compositions arranged by the percussionist or keyboardist Robert Irving III. Solos are divided among members of the orchestra or 2005’s version of the EHE, which then featured the percussionist – who has taught and performed at Bordeaux’s local music academy since the early 1980s – Dawkins, and Joseph Bowie on trombone and percussion.

Bowie’s showcase, “Return of the Lost Tribe” frames the boneman’s butterfat thick chromatic tone in an arrangement that’s half Gil Evans-like pastel and half hip-hop vinyl scratching plus cross-patterning percussion. As the trombonist splashes out a series of widening blats and concludes with a harshly buzzing upwards squeak, he’s echoed by pitch-sliding tones from the massed horns and vocal exhortations from El’Zabar. Succeeded by Dawkins’ reed splintering tenor saxophone cries and hand-clapping from the band members, the tune undulates to its conclusion on a sea of djembe and balafon-rhythm-filed passages.

Local players such as tenor saxophonist Arnaud Rouanet – who has adopted Energy Music to his own ends – clarinetist Jean Dousteyssier – whose split-tone texture owe little to his classical background – and the note clusters and focal-point comping of pianist Olivier Soubles, make favorable impressions at various junctures as well. Sadly, despite the near-relentless beats from the percussionists, rapping and vocalizing by designated band members makes it abundantly clear why English has remained the paramount language of popular music.

More Bordeaux-based players get exposure on the mammoth “Speaking in Tongues”, a nearly 25-minute tour-de-force which begins with a vamping balafon interlude from El’Zabar and opens up into a piano-led big band chart with contrapuntal riffing from each of the orchestra’s sections. Tenor saxophonist Karlis Vanags slides a few reed bites and honks into his otherwise mid-range exposition, while trumpeter Piero Pepin manages to be both languid and impetuous, with in-your-face ornamental note expansion segmenting his rubato phrase-making.

With 12 [!] percussionists available to provide the bottom, the undulating stop-time arrangement works its way up to a crescendo of harmonized broken chords, showcasing Pepin’s whinnying stratospheric grace note exploration. Before the diminuendo finale that involves brassy triplets, Soubles feeds a series of organic note clusters to introduce upticking saxophone solos.

El’Zabar’s decades of teaching two months a year at Bordeaux’s Academy of Music and this stint as artist-in-residence proves that he has the skills to allow a massive ensemble to swing with a certain freedom. Nowhere however does it seem that any one the 39 natives – or the guests – can forget his academic training long enough to delve into unfettered improvisation.

Just as rhythmically propulsive, but freer in conception, is the quartet work on Hot’N’Heavy. On the five tunes here, El’Zabar favors the conga-like textures of his earth drum and his resonating berimbau. Decidedly freeboppish – and practically mainstream – when improvising on both his saxophones, Dawkins plays early John Coltrane to Corey Wilkes’ late period Miles Davis.

Favoring electronic pick-ups which often make his solos sound like flanging guitar-pedal extensions, the trumpeter also references the tradition, as when a quote from “Summertime” sums up his solo on “Major to Minor”, which otherwise has been characterized by ornamental triplets. The percussionist’s popping, pumping, vocalizing and cop-whistle shrills fill out much of the remaining space along with the guitarist’s claw-hammer-style variations.

Switching between electric and acoustic axes, Haque quietly accompanies El’Zabar’s chanting with folksy block chords. But when Wilkes spits out blurry oscillations from both his horns simultaneously, the guitarist uses slurred fingering coupled with rhythmic licks à la Herb Ellis to make his own point.

Ringing flamenco-style strumming from the guitarist, looser guttural cries and glottal tension-filed overblowing from the reedist characterize other tracks. So do hand percussion thwacks that are as much moderato as montuno. Yet they allow El’Zabar to highlight the African heritage of Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Probably the most realized tune is “MT”, which honors the recently deceased trumpeter and AACM stalwart Malachi Thompson. On top of shekere textures and a kalimba ostinato from the percussionist, Haque introduces ice-pick sharp licks, Dawkins produces split-tone arpeggios from his alto sax and Wilkes melds high-pitched chromatic coloration and open-horn hand-fanning. Ending with a triumphant tonal upturn, El’Zabar preceding foot stomps, vocalizing and highly percussive kalimba solo suggests what could have happened if Lionel Hampton had been a showman in South West Africa.

For AACM and El’Zabar followers, both CDs offer more instances of the percussionist’s rhythmically showy, yet imaginative musical sound. The quartet session may have a smidgen of an edge over the big band though, since it’s more recent and was recorded in the trapman’s home-town space.

—Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Transmigration: 1. Soul to Groove 2. Speaking in Tongues 3. Transmigration 4. Nu Art Claiming Earth 5. Return of the Lost Tribe

Personnel: Transmigration: Joseph Bowie (trombone); Ernest Dawkins (alto and tenor saxophones) and Kahil El’Zabar (kalimba) plus the Infinity Orchestra: Fabien Deyts, Piero Pepin, Vincent Fauguet and Dominique Darrouzet (trumpets); Jérémi Ortal, Guillaume Ballin and Guillaume Pique (trombones); Norris Kolmanis and Benôit Berthe (saxophones); Ilyes Ferera (alto saxophone); Arnaud Rouanet, Karlis Vangas and Marc Closier (tenor saxophones); Grat Martinez (baritone saxophone); Jean Dousteyssier (clarinet); Christian Patzer (flute); Olivier Soubles (piano); Clément Billardello and Xavier Corpis (guitars); Xavier Hayet (bass); Hervé Mignon (electric bass); Philippe Gaubert, Yoann Sheidt and Antonin Mallaret (drums); Marianne Thiebaut, Boudji Abasse and Manue Peran (djembes); Yacouba Silla (djembe and balafon); Yvan Chambard (balafon and percussion); Nicolas Perrin (dj turntablist); Stépane Castanet (dj); Nathalie Gaucher and Taro Ochiai (vocals) and Bindi Mahamat and Rémi Bernis (vocal rap)

Track Listing: Hot: 1. Major to Minor 2. MT 3. Hot ‘N’ Heavy 4. There Is a Place 5. Black as Vera Cruz

Personnel: Hot: Corey Wilkes (trumpet, flugelhorn and percussion); Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins (alto and tenor saxophones and percussion); Fareed Haque (electric and acoustic guitars) and Kahil El’Zabar (drums, earth drums and kalimba)