A time for drumming

Kahil El’Zabar at Ronnie Scott’s

Friday, 13th May — By Rob Ryan

KAHIL EL'ZABAR QUARTET – A TIME FOR HEALING - Kahil El'Zabar (copyright Christopher Andrews Stoptime Chicago)

Kahil El’Zabar. Photo: © Christopher Andrews, Stoptime Live, Chicago


WHEN I told people I was going to see Kahil El’Zabar at Ronnie Scott’s I was mostly met with blank looks.

Who? El’Zabar barely registers on many jazzers’ radar, yet this is a man who has played with Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Eddie Harris, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Cannonball Adderley.

While the likes of Sanders and Gary Bartz are revered as “elders”, El’Zabar remains relatively unsung. (Though the young East London jazz contingent get his brand of modal-based “spiritual” jazz – he played Church of Sound back in 2019.)

So, to Ronnie’s and the evening kicks off with a major disappointment before I even enter that storied space.

The famous chalkboard out on Frith Street has a name missing – trumpeter Corey Wilkes, such a key part of the sonic palette on the quartet’s latest album, A Time for Healing, is absent (it turns out he has Covid). Still, El’Zabar has fronted trios for many years, he was, I reckoned, unlikely to be phased by being a man down. So it proved.

I can’t say I didn’t miss Wilkes on the opener – a long, languid, fractured version of All Blues, that 6/8 vamp from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, with El’Zabar holding down the rhythm on a kalimba (or African thumb piano).

For evidence of why Wilkes would have been a key attribute to the tune, listen to his Kind of Miles record, which features El’Zabar on percussion.

But he wasn’t there, so the cool and capable young saxman Isaiah Collier was left to shoulder the harmonic weight of the piece. He stepped up to the plate and played up the “blues” part of the title, as if Miles had been hanging outRob in Southside Chicago (El’Zabar was a key part of the famous post-bop/avant-garde scene there) while keys man Justin Dillard took care of the bass line and added deft colouration. Within a few minutes, I’d forgotten they were missing a horn.

The latest album from the Kahil El’Zabar Quartet

There were just four numbers in all – the Miles, Coltrane’s Resolution from A Love Supreme, then the tribute Eddie Harris, in which the drummer played cajon (basically a wooden box, which originated in Peru – like playing a packing case, but with, in this instance, complex and tricky rhythms) and the hypnotic title track from the new album.

There is no doubt whose show it is – his musicians are fine players, but it is hard to take your eyes off El’Zabar. Once behind the drum kit, he grins and gurns and grunts and chants and yells encouragement and appreciation at the band, all the time playing with the beat, one minute channelling Elvin Jones, the next Tony Williams, another throwing in African and Latin accents or a Gil Scott Heron-like slice of jazz-funk.

I could have used more of his drumming as opposed to the explorations of the cajon and kalimba, but that is just because he is such an exhilarating player to hear and watch.

Now in his late sixties, he acknowledged the role of his London-based record label in “bringing an old man back from the dead”. A baffling comment from a man so full of life, but of course he means the records have given him a second commercial wind and a new, younger audience, so well done Spiritmuse (http://spiritmuserecords.com/).

Before he played the title track, El’Zabar mentioned his son had been beaten by a police baton during a George Floyd protest and how decades ago the same thing happened to him while marching with Fred Hampton (the man who was the subject of the film Judas and the Black Messiah).

The iniquities of racial strife and a thirst for peace run through El’Zabar’s catalogue – Chicago jazz was and is always highly political. The drummer was chairman of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Black Musicians) for many years and I was reminded of its old motto: “Great Black Music – Ancient to Future”.

That’s what we got at Ronnie’s on May 6.

• The Kahil El’Zabar quartet (with Corey Wilkes back in action) will play the We Out Here Festival in Cambridgeshire, August 25-28 (weoutherefestival.com)

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