Praise be to the healing arts of those contemporary jazz luminaries Kahil El’ Zabar and David Murray. If ever there was a time when we all needed calm and a spiritual deliverance it’s right now. A service, a quasi-liturgy of spiritual jazz, the two American titans of their experimental forms have drawn on a wealth of providence and influences to once more join forces through El’ Zabar’s “spirit groove” of connectivity.
As a harmonious bedfellow to the Chicago drummer/percussionist’s lauded (especially be me) Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, this righteous groove communion with the tenor sax and bass clarinet maestro Murray “intends to move you nakedly with a deep sense of dance on a Mind/Body/Spirit level.” And what a groove it is; a disarming rhythmic set of performances with a poignant, timely message, or, as El’ Zabar himself puts it, “This is the moment to rekindle the notion of social relevance within the legacy of jazz as an improvised people’s movement for social change.”
The creative partners enact this change (or at least attempt it) by channeling both the ancients and jazz greats they’ve both been lucky enough to share stages with over the last fifty years. El’ Zabar for his part, learning the craft through the Chicago hothouse known as the School of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and by playing with or supporting such greats as Eddie Harris, Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Archie Shepp (the list goes on). Oakland born Grammy Award winner Murray meanwhile has recorded and performed with a no less impressive list of notable talents, including Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Murray was also a founding forefather of the horns and wind instruments lauded World Saxophone Quartet.
El’ Zabar’s atavistic with a modern pulse spiritual soul and jazz experiments are coupled with Murray’s untethered long and short breath saxophone contortions on an album of new, specially written material and expansions of compositions from the back catalogue.
Joining them on church service organ and cascading, accentuated piano is Chicago stalwart Justin Dillard, and on bowing soothed and more scuttling acoustic bass, the burgeoning talent Emma Dayhuff. This makes for an enviable solid act; a quartet of jazz apprentices from different generations that between them have connections to every great jazz pioneer of the last fifty plus years. But, nearly, all roads lead back to Coltrane in particular. Murray despite practicing and molding amore unique technique inspired by the triumvirate of old guard doyens Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves then what Coltrane preached, he’s paid various homages to the late great saxophone deity. ‘Trane’, a notion, encapsulation, nod to his universal influence pared down to just the second syllable of a name, is all that’s needed on the track that appears on this album as a tribute of sorts. The swing time ‘Trane In Mind’ is a mood, a sense of that style; a splashed poolside dash of Coltrane in his ascendance.
Faith though is the main driver of the groove and varied utterances that pour out of this erudite ensemble’s performances. The water-carrier trickled percussive opener, ‘In My House’, welcomes all to El’ Zabar’s titular sanctuary; a place to raise the spirits and soul. A prayer in the form of a primal gospel House music anthem, the jug pouring shuffler features El’ Zabar’s signature vocal exaltations, which sometimes negate words and lyrics for just hums, feelings and an essence of vocal expression. A frame for a freeform expansion of the mood, Dillard switches from subtle piano phrasing to venerable organ, whilst Dayhuff bobs around as Murray customarily catches shortened hooted breaths and longer sublime circular breathing squalls.
The power of faith in love is enshrined on the next dreamy flight, ‘Necktar’. Dedicated to not only Murray’s new wife Francesca but also true love itself, the quartet skiffle and swing to a liquid soul music groove that sets up a meeting between Gil Scott Heron, Bill Withers and Lester Bowie. Talking of dedications, El’ Zabar’s ancestral percussive, vocal cooing ‘Katon’ opus was written for his fourth oldest son. (El’ Zabar has quite the brood of children and grandchildren we’re told). A special bond and sentiment is conveyed over a magical meditative suite of music box mbira, deft piano, serenading and hooting tenor and dipped bass.
‘In The Spirit’ is, as the title says, another faith radiating communion. Bird-like fluting floats over dusty brushed drums on this venerated shuffled version of the original, first performed by El’ Zabar in late 70s Germany. Another past composition, the low-key Savoy jazz like ‘Song Of Myself’ was part of El’ Zabar’s trio project with Murray and the late bassist Fred Hopkins. “An introspection of dancing in your mind”, this riff on that recital stands out on an album of ancestral percussive heavy spiritual jazz and stripped acoustic House music with its smoky, kept subdued almost downtempo, intimacy. Almost veiled even, toots, dusty drums, hints of the vibes and live lounge atmospherics take the listener off into a new thoughtful space.
Working in various forms together since the late 80s, a third composition – appearing on the lauded LP of the same name – ‘One World Family’ is framed as a sort of “theme song” for the partnership. Extending the original with a more expansive performed backing of woody-slapped rhythms (which near the end climax in an erratic display of pounding and punching), spiraling reedy fashioned free-flowing saxophone and soulful melody, the quartet flex and breathe across a earthy but skybound cycle.
A reconnection, a spiritual bound partnership El’ Zabar and Murray appear from the tumult to capture a difficult to quantify feeling: a rage even. Quenching the soul with a “spirit groove”, they’ve laid down a both swinging and mesmeric alternative jazz service of mediation but also, and above all, they push for a positive change in the most inflamed and dangerous of times.