Date of Release Aug 15, 2000
On Africa N'da Blues, Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio is joined by tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders - and the group couldn't have asked for a more appropriate guest. Like drummer/percussionist El'Zabar, he is a very flexible musician who is comfortable with both inside and outside playing. Sanders' resume includes everything from composing ethereal, gorgeous post-bop melodies to embracing the most blistering and atonal of free jazz on John Coltrane's post-1964 albums. Nothing on Africa N'da Blues could honestly be described as free jazz; this post-bop date generally favors an inside/outside approach and is more inside than outside. Most of the material, in fact, is quite melodic, this is true of "Pharoah's Song" and the title track (both written by El'Zabar), as well as performances of Coltrane's "Miles' Mode" and the standard "Autumn Leaves." Coltrane, of course, is Sanders' primary influence, and Ritual Trio members El'Zabar, Ari Brown (piano, tenor and soprano sax), and Malachi Favors (bass) are also big admirers of his work. The Coltrane who influenced this CD isn't the atonal Coltrane of 1965's Om but rather, the more accessible post-bop Coltrane of 1960-1964. Thanks to Sanders' participation, Africa N'da Blues is arguably the strongest album that Ritual Trio recorded for Delmark in the 1990s.
All Music Guide
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Even for a drummer, Kahil El' Zabar focuses a lot of energfy on the subject of time.
"But," El' Zabar explains, "I don't think in terms of the ' time game' - where this is in the past. and this is the present, and that's in the future, and then you trace a steady arc of civilization throughout history What about when you find an earlier civilization but see a more evolved cultural development? For instance, take the Egyptian dynasties, which 1,000 years ago had rudimentary brain surgery and built the pyramids, then move on to, say. 100 AD , with none of those skills being translated to the population of that period ' The technological free fall of the Dark Ages in Europe, the impoverishment and superstition that followed the collapse of the Incan Empire, in our own time, the spiritual stultification that replaced a millennium of creativity in newly communist Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the return to tribal warfare that destroyed the former Yugoslavia all these examples bolster El' Zabar' s analysis.
Naturally, though, it comes back to the music - specifically the adventurous, liberating, and often confrontational music that Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago produced in the 1960s Their music once shaped El' Zabar. a young percussionist and poet, into a prolific bandleader and arts activist, but he can't see why that fact should resign these artists to his past.
"They had a chemistry, a telepathy, and their music stands the test of time These ideas are not confined to one period, but are an ongoing, breathing experience that has had an impact on my life So the idea that there is a so called "resurgence,' a nostalgic relationship with what some people call the avant garde - it' s elusive It almost runs away from you in a sense, because these are great artists who are constantly defining their ideas " And El' Zabar has found a source of vitality in his own music by redefining his relationship with such artists "The goal has always been to develop one's own personality and not just mimic what you hear So when I have the chance to engage folks who' ve seen me since I was a teenager, and watched my growth as a human being and a musician, it's important for me to reassess my relationships with those who were the teachers - to develop relationships with these people as my peers.
Thus, on the Delmark album Conversations saxist Archie Shepp met the Ritual Trio, establishing a cross-generational bridge between the 1960s firebrand and El' Zabar's 20-year-old band. Before that, with the band Bright Moments (on the album Return Of The Lost Tribe, DELMARK 507), he worked similar magic with reedists Joseph Jarman and Kalaparusha Maurice Mclntrye, two founding members of the A ACM. And now, on Africa N' da Blues, the Ritual Trio hosts Pharaoh Sanders - allowing El' Zabar to write the next chapter in what has become a continuing study of the music that shaped his future.
Sanders, like Shepp, represents a direct link to the patron saint of the avant-garde, John Coltrane (having worked in Coltrane's expansive combos of the mid-1960s). And as the guest of honor on this album, he supplies living, fire-breathing, ambrosia-bearing proof of the ongoing revolution that El' Zabar paints so vividly above. The saxophonist's powerful yet buttery tone slices through the decades, allowing him to beguile both old fans and new converts; listen to his loping, lanky solos on the two takes of "Ka-Real." But that tone, like his sweet, swooping lyricism and his vibrant timbral explosions, are not mere gifts from Cod; as El' Zabar admiringly points out, "Pharaoh Sanders is a guy who still puts in four hours a day practicing. The multiphonics [notes split into two or three tones] that he plays, and the note-bending and note-breaking - you can't do that without a lot of practice...
'So you see, there are cats that are still growing and embodying a certain kind of excitement. It's not about whether you' re getting better as a player, but about the striving to get better."
For El' Zabar, it's also a matter of re-establishing the communality that once played a greater role in the development of this music. "The fabric of the community, and the role that music plays in it, is very different from when I was 15 or 16. In the late 60s, being a teenager then, guys were playing music that was almost radio-friendly, in that people danced to it: in fact, that's the last I remember of actual dancing to live music, not to deejays but live music, in a social setting. So when I deal now with the sound of Pharaoh Sanders, I remember 1969, hearing ' The Creator Has A Master Plan' [perhaps Sanders's best-known recording] on WVON-AM - on the radio - as a hip song of that time. This music that was later chronicled as avant-garde' was actually part of a social fabric that an entire community related to."
All of which would be nothing more than high-minded theory - except for the strength of the performances here. Sanders has enjoyed a renaissance of attention during the * 90s, but has rarely sounded as he does here, challenged by three musicians that draw on his influence but are leaders in their own right.
Malachi Favors Maghostut made his resonant bass lines and dry wit a foundation-stone of the Art Ensemble of Chicago throughout its 35-year existence; a Sanders contemporary, he provides the Ritual Trio with an ongoing example of El' Zabar's time-travel philiosophy. Art Brown, in El' Zabar's words, has earned a reputation as "a true professor of music. I still get a kick out of hearing all these guys, like Shepp and Pharaoh, express their respect for his work, and his intellectual as well as technical achievement on the horn." The Ritual Trio offers Brown a showcase for his versatility; on this album, he plays a great deal of piano (his "second instrument") behind Sanders and matches up brilliantly in the two-tenor treatment of "Miles* Mode." And Susana Sandoval, a Chicago poet and spoken-word artist, brings her deftly evocative inflections to "Africanos / Latinos," a new American anthem on which she collaborated with El' Zabar.
Such a work as "Africanos / Latinos," with its message of universality, fits perfectly in a project starring Pharaoh Sanders. In his music you can hear the church, the blues, Africa, and otherworldly kinds of stuff. "We listened to that music when we were young, trying to be like Sun Ra - we even had a band called the 'Cosmos Messengers' - and Pharaoh was just a whole different thing in terms of the romance in his music. We were looking at the entire lifestyle of the personalities we idolized - not just -what they played, but what came through them when they played. It was about getting to the spirit, and Pharaoh was definitely one of those entities who represented an accessibility to the spiritual plane."
He still is - just as today, Kahil El' Zabar's Ritual Trio represents an accessibility to this music's rich historical perspective. The past is prologue; the future comes home to roost. And in the arms of this music, the present is anything but tense.
-Neil Tesser (author. The Playboy Guide To Jazz (Plume))