Kahil El'Zabar's Experimental Band | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Kahil El'Zabar's Experimental Band 

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In his work as a nightclub promoter, arts activist, and artistic director of Steppenwolf's "Traffic" series, Kahil El'Zabar tends to fix his gaze on the future. But in his latest musical project the percussionist and bandleader serves up a slice or two of the past as well. His new Experimental Band--a nine-piece ensemble he conducts but does not play in--honors the original band of that name, the mid-60s orchestra developed by Muhal Richard Abrams into the famous crucible of the AACM. El'Zabar invokes another, more recent development with this band's repertoire--the musicians play "conductions," music he arranges and conducts on the spot. But El'Zabar's concept differs from that of Butch Morris, who coined the term in the 80s: where Morris uses an elaborate personal semaphore to prod the players into textured polyphony, El'Zabar leans in, sings a short riff, assigns it to the appropriate horns, and then gets it to swell or shrink by sweeping his hands upward or crouching into the floorboards. In a way, this project also harks way back to Count Basie's band of the 30s, in which section leaders launched riffs at key junctures behind the soloists, creating semispontaneous arrangements under Basie's watchful eye. As such the band doesn't ultimately sound all that "experimental," but boy, does it sound good. El'Zabar jokingly calls himself "the vamp master," and indeed he favors that device; with this band, the joy is in hearing how many variations he can wring from the original phrase. The excellent soloists, who are smart enough to use but not abuse the open-ended format, include four of Ed Wilkerson's 8 Bold Souls--bassist Harrison Bankhead, trumpeter Bob Griffin, trombonist Ike Jackson, and drummer Dushon Mosley--plus pianist Jodie Christian, altoist Ernest Dawkins, and another drummer, Avreeayl Ra, all known quantities as well. But altoist Edwin Daugherty and tenorist Duke Payne--both cagey and forceful soloists who've been out of the limelight for several years--carry with them the excitement of rediscovery. And with his windmilling arms, calisthenic lunges, exuberant shuffle steps, and otherworldly vocalizations, El'Zabar is the most electric conductor since Ben Franklin got hold of lightning. Tuesdays, 8 PM, Rituals, 537 S. Dearborn; 312-922-3834. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKempner.


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