Kahil El’Zabar Quartet

What It Is!
Delmark DE 5003

Although not subtitled “A Salute to John Coltrane”, What It Is easily could have been. For not only does Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s quartet play two of the revered saxophonist’s compositions, but with the combo filled out by a keyboardist, a bassist and a tenor saxophonist the comparisons are inescapable.

Tellingly the band is described as El’Zabar’s Quartet, for while the veteran percussionist composed the five non-Trane tunes, the band lacks the individual identity that his other configurations such as the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble or Ritual Trio possess. It could be because unlike those other bands, staffed by veterans like the percussionist, this group is filled out by still-maturing players: tenor saxophonist Kevin Nabors, bassist Junius Paul and Justin Dillard on piano, Hammond B3 organ and Fender Rhodes.

Ascending journeymen on the Chicago scene, each has extensive experience, with shared sideman credit at different times in the ensembles of local reedman Ernest Dawkins, and having worked with other Chi-Town legends such as the late trumpeter Billy Brimfield, and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell.

With El’Zabar able to replicate Elvin Jones’ power on traps set, Dillard’s tremolo-paced acoustic piano styling coming from McCoy Tyner, Paul’s bass work is solid in a Jimmy Garrison-like mode and Nabors a solid Trane-emulator who expresses himself in multiphonics and sharpened reed bites, the challenge here is to differentiate the group from the classic Coltrane quartet. This is done handily by the percussionist eschewing his regular kit for frame drum at points and Dillard frequently turning to the B3’s tremolo chording rather than piano. At the same time this instrumentation gives the CD a looser, late-night feel as if the four are re-creating a club set organized around a collection of standards and originals.

Without generating anything earth-shattering, each of the younger players acquits himself handily, with Dillard’s touch on the double keyboard especially memorable. When called upon, he pumps out appropriate blues feelings, but never lets the funk get so out of hand to dissolve into clichés. Nabors’ extended collection of shrieks and honks do their job, but at points his interface appears a little too studied, as if the circumstances prevent his improvising from becoming truly inspired. A solo session would be telling. Meanwhile Paul’s facility as a time-keeper is expanded in solo sections when he demonstrates a command of ingenious guitar-like chording. El’Zabar’s skills on trap set, earth drum and kalimba are already known, and he gets to express himself appropriately on each of his instruments. He also vocalizes on the R&B-oriented title track in a pleasing Marvin Gaye-like tenor.

Nonetheless his skill as mentor and bandleader is put into broadest relief on his composition “Song of Myself”. Tellingly, despite the conceited-appearing title, the 11½-minute track doesn’t merely flaunt his talents. Instead each band member is featured with the saxophonist shooting expanded note into the stratosphere; Paul holding tight to the beat during the turnaround; and Dillard, on organ, building his jittery ostinato into a rushing waterfall of emphasized jabs.

Don’t go to What it Is expecting definitive or experimental musical expression. But as a CD highlighting maturing players and featuring a veteran in a relaxed mode, it’s a pleasing listen and easily reaches its restricted goals.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. The Nature Of 2. Impressions 3. What It Is! 4. Song of Myself 4. Central Park West 5. From The Heart 6. Kari

Personnel: Kevin Nabors (tenor saxophone); Justin Dillard (piano, Hammond B3 organ and Fender Rhodes); Junius Paul (bass) and Kahil El’Zabar (drums, African earth drum, kalimba and vocal)