To say that Kahil El’Zabar is a percussionist is like saying Ludwig Van Beethoven was a songwriter. While both statements can be considered technically true, both are spectacular in their understatement of what each man truly accomplished, and in El’Zabar’s case, still accomplishing. Since this is a review of a piece by Mr.El’Zabar I’ll leave enumerating Beethoven’s achievements for another time and focus on the percussionist instead.
If I were to even just enumerate the number of projects that Kahil El’Zabar has founded and continues to involve himself in to this day, I would never get to the review at hand. But his Infinity Orchestra, whose latest disc Transmigration I’m reviewing, is only one limb of what he refers to as the Tree Of Life on his web site.
This Tree shows exactly how many different projects he has on the go, and where possible, lists the participants. The smaller bands, which some of you may be familiar with like, The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble or Ritual Tribe, are peopled by some of the greats of the Jazz Avant Garde: Joseph Bowie, Archie Sheep, Pharaoh Sanders, and Henry Huff to name only a few. But no matter who he plays with, Kahil El’Zabar’s presence is going to be felt.
It’s more than just his abilities as a musician, composer, arranger that make him so important to Jazz, it’s also his commitment to the music and the part he seems himself playing within it.
I think the social relationship of this art, and how it helped to transform and inspire people from decade to decade, goes without the recognition it deserves…At this point in my life I’m part of that legacy from Louis Armstrong to Anthony Braxton and the Chicago Art Ensemble
This is a man who walks his talk whether at home in Chicago or abroad in the Aquitaine region of France’s capital city Bordeaux where the majority of the musicians of the Infinity Orchestra are based. Since the year 2000 he has been the artist in residence at the academy of music for two months of every year and founded the orchestra he conducts on the Delmark records release Transmigration
For a lot of artists the jump from performing in the free form world of improvisation that makes up so much of Kahil’s work to conducting a thirty-nine piece Jazz orchestra might be more of a challenge than they could handle. But judging by the results one hears on this disc, not only does he manage to make the transition with ease, he is able to impart a good deal of the spirit that imbibes his more intimate groupings.
Perhaps the title of the disc, Transmigration came about because of his ability to move across genres, but it also is in reference to the diversity of people’s who meet and play in the Infinity Orchestra. Being near the Pyrenees mountains means that a quite a few of the musicians are of Basque heritage, while others are Algerian, West African, and the West Indies. El’Zabar himself was born in France and his parents and he moved to the United States when he was around four.
So not only is this a transmigration of styles, but also of nationalities and cultural backgrounds. Kahil puts that down to the affinity people have for the folk music of their heritage and bringing that sensibility to the music. Even without him taking an active role in the performance side, save for one balafon (thumb piano) solo on “Speaking In Tongues”, the percussion that forms the backbone of the disc has obvious African overtones, reflecting the heritage of players with names like Boudji Abasse and Manue Peran.
But that’s only a small part of the Transmigration that is happening on this recording. The opening track, “Soul To Groove”, has to be the first piece of music I can honestly say that I’ve heard a turntable be used as an instrument in accompaniment with others to such perfect effect. It lends a soulful, urban, down and dirty feel that you’d never be able to accomplish using more traditional means of percussion. The whole song carries a harder edge because of it allowing the soloists the freedom to get a little tougher than is normal for a funk/jazz-fusion type piece.
Of course you don’t normally hear a thirty-nine-piece band ripping into a hard-edged funk/fusion piece either. In fact that’s one of the wonders of this whole disc is what you do hear from a big band that you would never expect. The aforementioned balafon solo that begins the second track of the disc – “Speaking In Tongues”, and some of the haunting improvisations provided by a young musician from the Jazz hotbed of Latvia (Karlis Vanagas) on the same track showing be-bop influences are only the beginning for a multi instrument collage of sounds.
The song “Nu Art Claiming Earth” features countless forms of percussion that under pin and surround a rap in French. The good people will triumph over the evil through the power of the healing force of the arts all over the world is not the type of lyric we’re used to associating with rap, but it’s a sentiment that I have no problems saying I wish them all the luck in the world having that one come true – it’s a great ambition.
The disc closes with a live big band rendition of a work from one of El’Zabar’s smaller ensembles; The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s “Return Of The Lost Tribe”. The other two members of the Ensemble, Joseph Bowie on trombone, and Ernest Dawkins on alto saxophone supply solos that soar over top of the big body of sound that a thirty-nine piece Jazz band can generate. Now that’s a “wall of sound” sounding like music not just white noise.
An amazing piece of music and a fitting end to a disc that is all about the blending together of different styles and cultures to form a unified sound. Transmigration might take Kahil El’Zabar out of his environs of Chicago, but it doesn’t take him out of the world he is most familiar with, Jazz. This may be somewhat more accessible musically then other discs he has produced, but that doesn’t stop it from being as innovative and inspiring as any of his more complex creations. You could end up listening to the Infinity Orchestra an infinite number of times.