One of Kahil El'Zabar's greatest assets is his flexibility -- the Chicago-based drummer for the Ritual Trio and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has never been afraid to hurl himself into a variety of avant-garde jazz situations, and his sense of adventure has served him well. This rewarding CD finds El'Zabar forming a duo with the distinctive violinist Billy Bang; not surprisingly, they enjoy a strong rapport and bring out the best in one another. Embracing mostly original material, the musicians favor an inside/outside approach and provide an album that is left of center but still quite musical. The influence of the AACM, which El'Zabar has been a member of since 1969, is impossible to miss on Spirits Entering; like so many AACM-minded releases, this CD opts for space rather than density. Tracks like Bang's "The Dream Merchant" and El'Zabar's Asian-influenced "The Ituri Fantasy" aren't harsh, abrasive, or confrontational -- they're probing and introspective in a spacey sort of way. World music is a strong influence on this release; African, Asian, and Middle Eastern elements are incorporated, and two traditional ethnic instruments that El'Zabar plays in addition to the drums are the African thumb piano and the Brazilian berimbau. While Spirits Entering isn't the first album to use these instruments in an avant-garde jazz setting, El'Zabar's thumb piano and berimbau solos demonstrate that they still have a lot of possibilities as jazz instruments. Those who have enjoyed El'Zabar's work with the Ritual Trio and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will also find a great deal to admire about Spirits Entering.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson