Ending On a High Note: David Murray/Kahil El’Zabar Duo at New Africa House
The one hundred people crammed into the New Africa House Theater on the University of Massachusetts campus on June 12 were filled with anticipation. David Murray and Kahil El’Zabar, two towering figures in creative music, had not been through these parts in over 15 years, and many in the crowd understood how special an event this promised to be. The concert coincided with the annual meeting of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, which just completed its seventh season presenting some of the finest improvisers on the planet.
Tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist David Murray has been a major figure since he burst on the scene in the late 1970s. Along with Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman and Joe Lovano, Murray is one finger on the hand of the most influential living saxophonists. After decades living in Paris – which might as well be Mars for the average American jazz fan – Murray has moved back to New York and is re-establishing a State-side presence.
There are few artists with a greater gap between importance and recognition than percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. Coming up he performed in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Cannonball Adderley, and Nina Simone (for whom he also designed clothes.) He scored and starred in numerous independent and feature films, and was chosen to do the arranging for the stage performance of The Lion King. He is the subject of Dwayne Johnson-Cochran’s complex and celebrated film, Be Known-The Mystery of Kahil El’Zabar. He was knighted by the French government in 2014, when he received the Medal of the Knights of Arts & Letters.
El’Zabar has dedicated his life to his community in Chicago. He was nurtured by, and later served as president of the most important musician-led organization in jazz history: Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM.) His Chicago roots are entwined with some of the most important musicians in the city: Malachi Favors, Ernest Dawkins, Ari Brown, Edward Wilkerson and Fred Hopkins. He was named “Chicagoan of the Year” in 2004 by the Chicago Tribune for his efforts as a musician, educator, and community leader.
El’Zabar rotated between trap drums, cajón, (a box drum used throughout Latin America,) and mbira (an African thumb piano, also called kalimba or sanza.) Murray played tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. They took us on a ride.
They began in 5th gear, tearing into an original at an impossible tempo, throwing down the gauntlet: they meant business. Despite a 500-mile drive from Pittsburgh where they played the night before, and being in their mid-60s, their energy kept us elevated over two sets of spiritual uplift.
They gave us a transcendent performance of “Summertime” (featuring tenor and mbira.) Jazz Shares charter member Jonny King told me he tired of the song a long time ago, but on Wednesday he heard the Gershwin classic as if for the first time. Murray and El’Zabar grounded it in the blues, and imbued the piece with slow release gravitas.
They covered Monk’s lesser known, “Let’s Cool One,” with Murray exposing the rich, reedy underbelly of his bass clarinet and El’Zabar creating buzz with ankle rattles and snare-like effects on his cajón. They were able to anticipate each other’s shifts in mood and tempo, and decided in an instant to stop on a dime. All made possible by their shared 30-year history.
El’Zabar’s vocals provided a special dimension throughout the concert. He sung lyrics of love and cooperation on “One World Family,” he unleashed a rubbery yodeled scat that produced smiles and raised eyebrows, and he moaned and exhorted whenever the spirit moved him.
The cumulative effect was a deep opening of the soul, with all the possibilities that creates. It is inspiring to know that Murray and El’Zabar are spreading that magic day after day, in city after city, during a packed, no-frills tour that will take them throughout North America. Many musicians half their age have neither the stamina nor the drive to consistently deliver those goods. El’Zabar told me he has taken his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on the road for 46 consecutive years. They are gods in my book, with the whole world of music in their hands.
Coda: Thanks to Jason Robinson and Bob Weiner, who on short notice, put a producer’s mind at ease by agreeing to play some music. As the clock passed 5:00pm and I hadn’t heard from David and Kahil, my vivid imagination got the best of me and I asked Jason and Bob to be on stand-by. Of course, they improvised beautifully on tenor saxophone and drums, while our late arriving guests stretched their legs and caught their breath.