By Martin Schray
This album finally gives me the chance to apologize. When I reviewed Vinny Golia/Marco Eneidi/ Lisa Mezzacappa/Vijay Anderson’s “Hell-Bent in the Pacific” about a year ago I claimed that New York was the (free) jazz capital without even mentioning Chicago and its outstanding musicians. Actually an inexcusable mistake.
The city’s jazz history is intrinsically tied to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), to names like – among others - Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis or Kahil El’Zabar, who founded his two most famous groups, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and the Ritual Trio, in the 1970s after he had joined the AACM, whose chairman he became in 1975. Not only is he a great percussionist whose style is deeply rooted in African rhythms and instrumentation, he is also a great singer.
His latest Ritual Trio album “Follow the Sun” presents him in top form (he recently celebrated his 60th birthday) displaying a new and beautiful collection of his own songs as well as cover versions. The current line-up of his band is Ari Brown on tenor and piano, Junius Paul on bass, and El’Zabar himself on drums, kalimba, and earth drum and on this album they are augmented by great guest vocalist Dwight Trible and Chicago legend Duke Payne on second tenor and bagpipes.
The album contains almost classic jazz instrumentals like “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” or “Our Journey” but actually the vocal tracks are more interesting.
Two highlights of the CD feature El'Zabar in a duet with Trible – "Great Black Music" and "Grandma's Hands" – both with a strong focus on piano, acoustic bass lines and percussion. The first one is actually about the philosophy of the AACM with Trible repeating phrases like “Open your soul” or “A power much stronger than itself” in front of Brown’s piano interspersions, El’Kazar’s beautiful kalimba and his warm baritone constantly reciting and murmuring the words “Great black music” so that the whole track develops a very spiritual quality. On top of it Duke Payne throws in a bagpipe solo with the instrument sounding like a soprano saxophone. Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands”, a song about his grandmother, is based on an irresistible soul groove and El’Khazar and Trible sing it as if the old woman was the personification of hope for all African Americans in the US. It is more powerful and self-confident than Withers’s rather melancholic version (which is wonderful in a different way) but it is also a really gloomy evaluation of the situation because it ends with the lines ”But I don’t have grandma anymore/If I get to heaven I’ll look for grandma’s hands.”
Last but not least “Up your Mind”, the final song of the album, is a real killer capturing the magic live atmosphere of one of the group’s gigs. Actually it is two tracks in one because the composition tilts after four minutes from a fast percussion-driven rocker to a deep slow funk monster that creeps into our ears so that you cannot help to move your feet. It is a song in the tradition of Gil Scott-Heron or Terry Callier. Great album!