Kahil El’Zabar Feat. David Murray ‘Spirit Groove’ 2LP/CD (Spiritmuse) 4/5

Multi-percussionist, vocalist & composer, Kahil El’Zabar, has achieved much.
He’s performed with musical greats (Pharoah Sanders, Lester Bowie, Archie Shepp, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Nona Hendryx etc.), headed-up the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, chaired the AACM, scored music for feature films, was knighted by the Council General of France (oooh Chevalier), and is also a published poet and painter. His partner in crime, here, is the circular breathing, legendary tenor sax colossus, David Murray. They first recorded together in ’89, now having an impressive a 4-decade span of collaborative spiritual jazz exploration. Between them, and together, they have irrefutably earned the right to title an album “Spirit Groove”.

“Spirit Groove” is a blend of live and studio recordings from June 2019, Chicago with El’Zabar and Murray accompanied by Emma Dayhuff (Herbie Hancock) on acoustic bass and Justin Dillard (Junius Paul Qt) on synth, organ & piano.

“In My House” is a new track. It’s a 20-minute communion; a live spiritual meditation; an evolving mantra where El’Zabar delivers a menu of physical and metaphysical house can-do’s over finger-clicking percussion before Murray, Dayhuff and Dillard modally invite him to explore his spirit scat. El’Zabar’s voice is rich here; big and expressive with touches of Don Thomas around and about. Murray is mainly sympathetic, sitting back in the mix, with occasionally excitingly explosive, lengthy phrases.

Murray’s love song to his wife, “Nektar”, highlights an El’Zabar/Murray, Scott-Heronesque, “Open Up The Door” motif that Dayhuff and Dillard expertly comp around, keeping it vital and securing its infectious hook for days to come. Murray’s tone is lovely and his playing enamouringly graceful.

“Songs Of Myself” stutters along with an impossibly indolent El’Zabar kit wash which Dayhuff tries her damnedest to drop further behind and make even more slothful. Dillard goes for a gentle stroll, as do El’Zabar and Murray, but they all conscientiously return to yet another deeply contagious (5 note) riff that’s so infectious it implausibly makes you forget to “Open Up The Door”.

Afro-centric percussion introduces “Katon” into a wide North European space loosely braced by a bassline that reminds of Dan Berglund. It’s lethargic and atmospheric; more narcotic than hypnotic and Murray eloquently and connectedly explores its barely interrupted soporific vista, bringing warranted applause from the live audience.

“In The Spirit” brings forth the titular groove and highlights both El’Zabar’s and Murray’s soulful, communicative voices as they play a spiritual ‘Yes and’ game together. “Trane In Mind” definitely does have him in mind; not only him but his quartet too. It’s a big swinging Tyner-esque modal comper with an optimal bass strut; there’s five minutes I’m happy to have ‘wasted’ today. “One World Family” wraps things up with easy-going, lightish touch, soulful optimism aided by a sweet bassline and a liberated sax to aptly fit El’Zabar’s loved-up future view. Hard not to feel hopeful with him.

Although the tracks were written at different times “Spirit Groove” works incredibly well as an album. It’s a meaningful and coherent, groove-propelled, evolving spiritual riff where each track is compelling and engenders a wish that it will go on forever until you hear the next track and then you wish the same for that one too. The musicianship is faultless throughout and Murray and El’Zabar’s communication is so fluid and deeply empathic; a testament to their long relationship and a true joy to hear.

I’ll leave El’Zabar to succinctly sum it all up, while I, excuse me, spiritually cavort in the buff: “‘Spirit Groove’ intends to move you nakedly with a deep sense of dance on a Mind/Body/Spirit level”. Intention fulfilled, I think you’d agree.

Ian Ward