In 1993, drummer Kahil El'Zabar and his Chicago-based Ritual Trio (which also includes saxman Ari Brown and bassist Malachi Favors) joined the Delmark roster with Renaissance of the Resistance, an excellent inside/outside date that contains mostly original material. This CD underscores the fact that not all avant-garde jazz is atonal free jazz; on the whole, this is quite musical and melodic. That is true of the funky "Ornette" (as in Ornette Coleman), as well the evocative title song and the haunting "Sweet Meat." Meanwhile, "Trane in Mind" recalls John Coltrane's modal period of the early to mid-1960s - it isn't the sort of hard bop that the saxman favored in the late 1950s, nor is it the sort of blistering, atonal free jazz that he got into during the last few years of his life. Unlike the bop snobs who are content to spend their lives hearing the same old standards done the same old way, El'Zabar has very eclectic tastes - the Chicagoan has stated that his taste in music ranges from soul man Jackie Wilson to traditional Bulgarian choirs. And, true to form, he brings a healthy appreciation of world music to this album, combining jazz with African, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences. In fact, the title song and the peaceful "Golden Sea" find El'Zabar stretching out on the African thumb piano - and why not? There is no law stating that a traditional African instrument cannot be used as a jazz instrument. Although 1999's Africa N'da Blues is arguably the best album that the Ritual Trio provided in the 1990s, Renaissance of the Resistance runs a close second.
- Alex Henderson (All Music Guide)
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"over a period of time, says percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, "one learns how to survive while exploring unpopular areas and that devotion and commitment will eventually deliver, hopefully, an expression of elegance - because to rebel is not really a frustrated, frantic kind of energy ... When you think about people who have spent a really long time developing ideas, concepts or ways of life contrary to popular motion, in order to do that they have to develop patience, sensitivity, greater understanding and most of all, focus.
"I know a period is coming soon which will reflect this kind of commitment - because the last 15 years have been in a much more conservative revisionist mode - and nothing stays the same forever." This then is what El'Zabar has in mind when he calls his latest release Renaissance of the Resistance. It's meant as a harbinger of things to come, the imminent fruition of the long saga of what can be called, for Lack of a handier term, the jazz avant-garde. Specifically, he says,"those folks who have been cognizant in terms of the traditions of this music - those people in their 40s to 60s who have really advanced the language during the past twenty years - and have maintained developing individual voices." Don't be misled, though - the Ritual Trio is not about the return of the fire-breathing brigades of the '60s, come back to reclaim musical space inhabited by a young generation of buttoned-dovm post-bop clones. It is, rather, a very '90s version of progressive improvisational music - eclectic in mood and influence, willing and able to look back and reach forward; post-modern in a sense but lacking, thankfully, that overdone po-mo taint, irony. When El'Zabar croons Save Your Love For Me, it's not only sincere, it's positively mellow. From the rolling intensity of Fatsmo to the more Light-hearted but equally quick-witted Sweet Meat and then the serenely contemplative beauty of Golden Sea there's never any doubt that each separate sound universe is a serious reality to these musicians, they don't step back as they don their approach, they stay focused and in the moment.
How the Trio avoids the sometimes distancing effect of eclecticism is through emotional commitment - a quality which El'Zabar sees as having become somewhat rare in the current music scene. "In all of the developments in the music," he says, "from Baby Dodds, Armstrong and Jelly Roll, through Bird and Diz to Ayler and Trane, feeling was a very important dominant in terms of whatever intellectual investigations were going on - and that's something that's very different in today's music across the board, not just in jazz - as we've didactically separated the forms, we've forgotten that the essence of music's development was that emotional impact called feeling."
El'Zabar bemoans the current balkanization of the music audience, especially among the young, who tend to get locked into one Little area of musical consumption and are spoon-fed pre-fab "feelings" designed for that particular demographic. He remembers when, not too long ago, things were different.
Growing up in Chicago he listened to a variety of musicians. "The music wasn't separated like it is today," he recalls. "Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke influenced me as well as Trane. By the time I was 11 I was playing in the clubs and in 1969 (at age 16) I joined the AACM-but I did a lot of R&B stuff too, worked with Donny Hathaway for years, worked in the early '70s with Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. And these days I still listen to a variety of things - Bulgarian choir music, Tibetan monks, Pygmy music, Brazilian music..."
It's this openness which informs the Ritual Trio's non-parodistic commitment to variety. El'Zabar's Trio co-horts are longtime associates from the Chicago scene who share his varied background and determination to keep mind and ears open. He feels especially indebted to bassist Malachi Favors. "There's probably nobody in terms of influences on me as important as Malachi whom I've been working with since I was 16-he's been like a silent teacher by virtue of his sensitivity, timing, pulse and versatility." As for saxist Ari Brown, his adeptness at playing a plaintive soprano, or a tenor in both urgent and more conversational styles, makes him a perfect fit in an ensemble that has no leading voice but rather is a trio of communicants moving through common ground.
As El'Zabar sums it up: "Why do I call it the Ritual Trio? Wefl, it means when we do the music it's not just a function, a gig, but actually a celebration, a ceremony-or ritual-that codifies our purpose as human beings through this gift of music." A rather lofty vision, but one borne out by the music on this disc - a music that mixes high seriousness with a copmpelling investment of, like the man said, feeling.
-Richard C. Walls