Percussionist, composer, vocalist, and bandleader Kahil El'Zabar is a force of nature. For nearly five decades he's led Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Ritual Trio. He was a member of the Bright Moments collective with Joseph Jarman, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntrye, and Steve Colson, and worked as a sideman with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley to Eddie Harris and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Spirit Groove features El'Zabar in the company of saxophonist and longtime collaborator David Murray, bassist Emma Dayhuff, and pianist/keyboardist Justin Dillard on synth, organ, and piano. This outing shines a light on the accessibility and vision of El'Zabar's abundant creativity. Whether playing kalimba, drum kit, congas, shakers, vibes, or singing, he is in pursuit of the ancient universal groove, and its twin manifestations as spiritual and aesthetic entities in the contemporary world.
Opener "In My House" establishes trancelike qualities early in its 20-minute duration. Kalimba and bass accompany a chanted vocal that's drenched in soul. Murray's tenor saxophone emerges straight from the modal blues at about four minutes. The call-and-response between vocals, rhythm, and Murray becomes a threaded interaction; it's spontaneous even through a trancelike groove. Various solos -- including Murray's deep emotional wail -- emerge as the vamp, not apart from it, as the whole thing travels the outer reaches of song. "Nektar" intersects with much of the new jazz emerging from the U.K. It's a celebration of the ancestral fueled by a modern pulse initiated by Murray's post-bop blowing, El'Zabar's ticking snare and hi-hat, and vamping electric piano that seeks to express all sides of a groove, from dependent interactive origination to unbounded communication. "Songs of Myself" emerges modally from silence with El'Zabar offering a drenched-in-mystery, muted shuffle on his drum kit, answered by Dillard's exploratory piano and effects, and Dayhuff's slowly hovering yet pulsing bassline. Organ flits in and out, as do off-mike vocals and spacy vibes. Murray's smoky, investigative lyricism clocks in to sum up everything that has come before, pushing the ensemble to take it further. "In the Spirit" is spiritual soul-jazz at its best; where Roy Ayers, Leon Thomas, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, and Joe Lee Wilson all mingle with Booker Little and Pharoah Sanders in riff-centric and obsessively assonant modal jazz. It stirs emotionally as poignant questions emerge from the mix about our attentiveness while affirming the spiritual truth of rhythm. While "Trane in Mind" is self-explanatory, it's also notable for Murray's blowing. It's aware and plugged in with the rhythm section's emotional expression. Murray traverses post-bop, modal, and free jazz with a focus that -- like its namesake's Expression album -- frames abundance as the result of gratitude and unity. Spirit Groove is at once in keeping with El'Zabar's welcoming, prophetic look at jazz as a life force and also as a new chapter that seeks to simplify and express fully how "the groove" unites us.