Our Daily Bread 405: Kahil El’ Zabar ‘America The Beautiful’

October 13, 2020

Album Review/Dominic Valvona

Kahil El’Zabar ‘America The Beautiful’
(Spiritmuse) 23rd October 2020

Continuing a creative partnership with the Spiritmuse label, Chicago jazz luminary Kahil El’Zabar releases his third African rhythmic imbued spiritual album in two years; working yet again with an ever changing lineup of fellow visionaries and rising virtuosos from his home city and beyond. Following last year’s Be Known Ancient/Future/Music (which made our albums of the year) and this year’s Spirit Groove album collaboration with David Murray, the jazz incubator School of The Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians alumni and five decade jazz veteran pieces together a suitable afflatus cry from the despair of modern America on his latest sweeping grand gesture, America The Beautiful.

Though obviously, as you will hear for yourselves, chiming with the current divisive turmoil that has erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s “unconstitutional murder, and the Covid-19 pandemic, the catalyst was Kahil’s score for Darryl Robert’s award winning documentary film of the same title: a 2007 film about “self-image” in the USA. That title music, two versions of which bookend this ancient with a modern pulse oeuvre, is itself both an ironic and sneering riff on the original patriotic anthem that was written by Katherine Lee Bater, with music by church organist Samuel A. Ward, over a century ago. Bates the scholar, collage professor and highly prolific writer first wrote the proud-swelling lyrics as a poem (Rikes Peak) after being inspired by the great American outdoors and the country’s own version of the seven wonders. Countless versions have been performed, recorded since, including the maverick jazz artist Gary McFarland who devoted a conceptual eclectic musical suite to its rousing evocations; in the process jazzing and funking up the old bird. This take however finds little to rouse patriotism, sharing more in common with Ornette Coleman’s grandiose symphonic dissonance Skies Of America; that suite a contortion of Coleman’s naturalistic Native American rituals inspired master plan.

Kahil includes both a lilted and horn blown Bernstein-via-a-century’s-worth-of-Chicago jazz instrumental take, and a 80s pepped dance groove vocal version: The latter features the bandleader straining, pulling, mooning and crooning the original lyrics of ‘America The Beautiful’ to a dance limbering Chicago House like beat.

Building a fully realized album around that anthem, Kahil went back to record an array of new material and riffs on standards: his choices proving more spiritual, healing than angry and enraged. For this is a jazz artist preaching connectivity during a momentous epoch. A time, he hopes, that despite the tumultuous unrest and anxieties can offer us time to pause, reflect and reassess. In the spirit of one of Kahil’s idols, Coltrane, his inspiration is that grand doyen of jazz’s message of a “love supreme”, and also the African adventures of Byrd and Gillespie via Sun Ra’s cosmology of Afro-futurism. And so musically, despite the swells and layering of discordant instrumentation wailing, and crying out, this is a mostly divine experience; sweetened by the inclusion of a romanticized, serenaded beautiful version of the Bee Gees (via Al Green’s more soulfully hushed vision) ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’. Only Kahil switches the “you” to “we”, and in doing so forces the emphasis on all of us to mend the rift. Musically it’s a swoon; a walk through a sweet Central Park backdrop. It has an air of both pained heartbreak yet also hope, and is the album’s most tender performance.

Swinging to a ‘Orleans gait, Kahil’s big band version of Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s famous strut ‘Express Yourself’ is reimagined as a semi-classical jazz funk of King Curtis and Albert Ayler. Classically trained jazz cellist and Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble student, Tomeka Reid offers part of that semi-classical feel with a deep, arching quivery cello accompaniment.

Closing a quartet of congruous cover transformations, Kahil ad his troupe expand on the Afro-jazz percussive-heavy ‘Afro-Blue’ odyssey; the first jazz standard in the States built on a typical African 3:2 cross rhythm. Made famous by Mongo Santamaria with the Cal Tjader Sextet in ’59, and transformed by Coltrane who took it in a waltz-y swinging direction, this Chicago hothouse of talent goes earthy and deep, atavistic and dramatic. Samuel Williams plays a harassed, pointed elbow thrashing violin against the clay percussion and Masekela trumpet on a message from the motherland. 

With all the original connotations bought into a modern epoch of discord, these standards now echo a longing and pain for change.

The rest of the album channels the inimitable groove that runs through Chicago jazz, soul, R&B, blues and dance music. ‘Jump And Shout (For Those Now Gone)’ is a poignant example of this history; evoking the city’s spiritual and avant-garde masters – The Art Ensemble Of Chicago being one. It’s a kind of sentiment, a yearning for justice, but with a bounce and venerated enlightenment. ‘Freedom March’ couldn’t be more relevant; the long march to equality accompanied by apparitional wails, shackles shaking percussion and anguished rasps of sax. It also sadly marks one of the late baritone saxophonist greats, Hamiet Bluiett’s last performances. Not only a phenomenal sax presence, but also a renowned clarinetist and composer, the co-founder of the late 60s Louisiana Black Artists Group and former member of the Charlie Mingus Quintet and the Sam Rivers large ensemble, blows a moving honked and aria-like squealing raspy baritone through this counterbalance of Mardi Gras swing and the disconsolate.

Kahil, literally, preys for guidance on both the electric piano dabbing, lamenting swell ‘That We Ask Of Our Creator, and the sweeping fluty beat-stretched ‘Prayer For The Unwarranted Sufferings’.  Both draw from the pool of despair, yet find just as much hope to offer some glimmer of overcoming the impasse.

An extraordinary portrait of the current mood, Kahil’s conscious divine spiritual jazz opus channels the contorted soul of Chicago’s rich musical heritage; spanning eras as old as atavistic Africa, the be-bop, swing eras, leaping through the avant-garde and 80s dance music culture to create a soulful and always grooving purview of the American social-political divide in 2020: Election year.

An incredible jazz score no less from one of the most active and transformative artists in the field, a true acolyte of the scene’s most celebrated, progressive greats, Kahil carries the torch for a more healing engagement with the causes, activism he holds dear. There’s no mistaking where he’s coming from, with an album that has never been more vital and enriching to a culture and creative form under pressure and fire to react to the changes taking place.

See also…

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble ‘Be Known Ancient/Future/Music’  (here…)

Kahil El’ Zabar’s ‘Spirit Groove Ft. David Murray’ (here…)

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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