Music Monday: Kahil El’Zabar

Kahil El’Zabar is one of my favorite musicians. I love the deep groove inherent in almost everything he’s released and his unapologetically political. I don’t always get what he’s saying, but I feel like I need to listen to him carefully. 

It doesn’t hurt that he’s also played with so many of the musicians that I really like including some of the post-Coltrane greats like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, the innovative and unpredictable Billy Bang, and both the original and more recent generation of AACM musicians from Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors to the more recent members like Justin Dillard and Corey Wilkes.

Since El’Zabar’s birthday was last week and he has a new album coming out on Friday, it seemed like a nice time to provide a little list of my favorite three Kahil El’Zabar albums. This shouldn’t be confused with a list of his best albums or anything like that. They’re just the ones that constantly hoover around the edges of my collection.

First, I really like Conversations which brings El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio together with Archie Shepp in 1999. Like most El’Zabar albums (especially which feature him alongside AACM founder Malachi Favors and longtime Chicago staple Ari Brown), there’s a groove here and Shepp’s playing shows that he can speak across registers as effortlessly as he did in the 1970s and when he does take off on a more wild-eyed flight, it’s almost serves to inform his more melodic moments and remind the listener that there’s always this tension in his playing between the song and the fury. 

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Billy Bang is one of those artists whose work has always wanted to get to know better, but the idea of jazz violin has sort of made me nervous. Spirits Entering (2001) has been one of my introductions to his work and it’s the kind of album that I can listen to over and over and drift in and out of over the course of  an afternoon and consistently find something interesting. Like all El’Zabar albums, there’s a groove and there’s also a story and the interplay between the two is the power of his brand of spiritual jazz. 

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Finally, El’Zabar partnership with Hamiet Bluiett has been as enduring as it is wonderful. In El’Zabar’s American the Beautiful (2020) Bluiett’s baritone sax sometimes threatens to steal the show. The tracks on the album range from pop standards to the American songbook, as with so many of El’Zabar’s albums, and the interpretations of the songs flow along with enough momentum to be contagiously fun and enough depth to be serious. The album cover evokes the productive tension between the message and the messenger with the spectacular critique of the American flag. 

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Finally, the band that El’Zabar has assembled for his new album sounds really great. I’ve been curious about the trumpeter Corey Wilkes for some time and I’m looking forward to his work on this new album. Based on what I’ve heard on A Time for Healing should very much continue in El’Zabar’s tradition of compelling groove-centered spiritual jazz. You can check it out here.

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