Percussionist, composer and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) member Kahil El’zabar, has found a way to incorporate real African music and instrumentation into jazz music. More so than the traditional African-American roots so often associated with jazz, El’zabar goes back to the original source and infuses his music with a real African sensibility. The result is a life’s work culminating in a rich discography of consistently excellent music.
In this recording as leader of the Infinity Orchestra, his ideas and abundant musical concepts are given a large canvas upon which he can paint his colors. The ensemble, a collective based in the city of Bordeaux in France, includes many musicians from West Africa, North Africa and the West Indies. The group is a true "big" band; 39-members strong. While this hurts the recording process, it’s tough to place microphones accurately in order to pick up all of the nuance of the varied percussion instruments employed (the disc is a recording of a live concert in 2005), the end result is still an exceptional document of exciting and important music.
El’zabar’s music shifts and takes unexpected yet refreshing turns through the use of changing instrumental colors, crossed rhythms and the return of real dynamics into jazz music. "Speaking In Tongues," for example, begins with a shifting trippy percussion-heavy groove under unison ensemble rhythmic patterns before it all-of-a-sudden has carefully turned into a shuffle/swing feel. A series of different soloists then place various soloist concepts, including free and quasi-modal approaches, on top of an ostinato-ish chordal/rhythmic pattern. The piece incorporates not only some of the work of Miles Davis, but also traces of other influences including Don Ellis, djembe rhythms and bop, to name just three. While many would wish to label this as world music, it is truly jazz with all of the full and varied connotations the word represents and inspires.
Other highlights include Arnaud Rouanet’s tenor saxophone solo on "Transmigration." Placed over and within a bed of voices, both real and instrumental, that slide inside and through shifting harmonies, he is able to get to the heart of the moment in the same manner Expressionistic composers like Alban Berg could find meaning outside of traditional harmony. He, and El’zabar as composer, seems to take work done in the avant-garde by earlier AACM artists, as well as early John Klemmer, into a new and exhilarating direction. Rouanet is an artist worthy of following.
This disc has to be considered one of El’zabar’s best. While he, as a performer, is not really featured (just one solo), the entire disc shouts his name at every juncture. As the conductor, composer and guiding light, his leadership channels these musicians into a powerful and many-hued landscape. Consider this required listening.