Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio with Hamiet Bluiett

[Photographs by Elaine Fine.]

Last night I was fortunate to hear an extraordinary musical performance by Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio with Hamiet Bluiett. If these names aren't familiar, there's a reason why: they belong to musicians associated with Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and St. Louis' Black Artists' Group, musicians dedicated to exploring new directions in music. At a time when what passes for contemporary jazz has grown ever more bland and feeble, a performance such as last night's is one to cherish.

El'Zabar is a percussionist, but "percussionist" doesn't begin to account for the range of sounds he brings to the bandstand. When he wasn't at his drum kit, he played an African drum, a wooden flute, or a mbira, stomping time with bells and shells strapped to one leg. He sang and preached a bit too, and provided wordless vocal accompaniment to the other musicians.

The other musicians: Ari Brown's piano recalled McCoy Tyner at times, and his tenor saxophone sound was rich and handsome, putting me in mind of Clifford Jordan. Hamiet Bluiett's sound on baritone saxophone is a wonder, the only baritone sound to rival that of Harry Carney of the Duke Ellington orchestra. Bluiett is fleet and full at the depths of his instrument's range, and he reaches into a piercing high register that Adolphe Sax could never have imagined on the baritone. Brown and Bluiett play both "outside" (atonally) and "inside" (tonally), moving with ease from one kind of playing to the other. And the bassist — I now regret not taking notes last night, as I cannot remember the name of the young bassist with the group. What I best remember of his playing though is the way he locked into deep grooves with El'Zabar, who stood just inches away playing mbira and bells. [February 2017: I now know the bassist's name: Sharay Reed.]

The tunes: "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," played freely and with a walking bass line. "Oof," "Big M," and "Malachi," three tributes to the late Malachi Favors, bassist for the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Ritual Trio, and El'Zabar's teacher. Ari Brown's "Where Do You Want to Go?," a particularly strong tenor solo. And for an encore, Miles Davis' "All Blues," with horns, bass, mbira, and bells.

The interplay among these musicians was profound — constant eye contact, constant encouragement, even an occasional request for help. Brown, laughing, to Bluiett: "Help me out," and the two horns began a dialogue. These four men formed a musical community, one that grew to include their listeners. I don't think I've ever seen as many members of an audience standing and waiting to thank musicians as I did last night.

The remarkable thing: this performance was free, offered in the lobby of the University of Illinois' Krannert Center.

[Note to Elaine: I'm so glad you enjoyed this concert.]

Kahil El'Zabar (Official website)

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