Kahil El’Zabar - America the Beautiful Music Album Reviews

The Chicago percussionist, bandleader, and composer offers a moving, frequently ebullient album that doesn’t shy away from the terrors of America’s past and present while managing, somewhat incredibly, to find hope in the country’s future.

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was an American when he rearranged the “Star-Spangled Banner.” He had left Paris in 1939 and was in the process of establishing residency in the U.S. when he decided to put his spin on the national anthem of his new country, where he would end up living for the rest of his life. His 1941 arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner”—which landed him in mild trouble with the Boston police—premiered in the early days of World War II. It keeps the melody intact, but he shades it with subtle blue harmonies that tweak the song’s strident sense of empowerment, rounding into a finale that, while still triumphant, is somewhat cracked. America, in Stravinsky’s telling, is weaker than it insists, but it still has the capacity for good. It takes less than 15 seconds with Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful to understand that he feels the exact same way.
The Chicago percussionist, bandleader, and composer came up through the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, serving as its chairman from 1975 to 1983, and he would go on to play with everyone from Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp to Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley. America the Beautiful, his second album of 2020—following June’s excellent Spirit Groove—is built around his rearrangement of the hallowed title track. It’s a moving, frequently ebullient album that doesn’t shy away from the terrors of America’s past and present while managing, somewhat incredibly, to find hope in the country’s future.

For El’Zabar, “America” begins with the drum. Specifically, the hand-pounded pulse of an African drum that sets the pace for his ensemble, which includes trumpeter Corey Wilkes, cellist Tomeka Reid, and the late baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, who makes his final recorded appearance here. They set the familiar melody into place, but they immediately saw holes in its bright optimism with uneven, uncomfortable harmonies. The symbolism is obvious, but no less moving for it: the notion of America’s beauty has been wounded, but crucially, it’s still afloat. Like John Coltrane’s quartet expanding the boundaries of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” the ensemble takes us far away from the song’s founding idea, only to return to it with a refreshed vision. That the melody is muddier and more difficult to make out when the group states it again near the end of the song is only part of the point; one gets the sense that, for El’Zabar, what matters most is that it persists.

“America the Beautiful” isn’t the only standard El’Zabar reconstructs. Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” here titled “Sketches of an Afro Blue,” is heralded by the string section, who recite the melody as if they’re making a dire announcement. The percussion nearly goes out of sync, wobbling on the edge of phasing out and keeping things from getting too comfortable, while Reid flies all over her cello’s fingerboard, spraying notes and nearly gasping into harmonics. There’s a relentless emotional heaviness to El’Zabar’s composition that’s virtually invisible in the original. Their take on Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s canonical “Express Yourself,” however, explodes like a box of compressed sunshine. While Bluiett’s baritone puckers and shouts, Reid and violinist Samuel Williams saw at the rhythm like they’re playing with a string band, connecting a timeless anthem of Black joy to music being made by Black people in this country over a hundred years ago.

But El’Zabar’s intermixing of brightness and lamentation is at its best in the original “Freedom March.” An eight-minute showcase for Bluiett, it unwinds slowly, sounding like both halves of a jazz funeral happening at the same time, the dirge and the celebration coexisting in a way that’s coherent, but not easy. Bluiett struts alongside the ensemble as they make their way through the tune, punching out deep runs with a chortle and pinching into a high scream. He’s all over the place: He beckons from an adjacent alleyway, then falls into place and plays alongside his bandmates for a few moments before growing restless and popping back out again. Taken together, it all suggests that the titular freedom means not only the freedom of expression, but the freedom to keep marching, to keep pushing, to find within confusion and anger—and joy and beauty—the raw materials needed to build something new.

Which makes the drum that kicks off the album feel even more auspicious. Throughout America the Beautiful’s frenetic explorations, it’s the percussion that keeps the ensemble grounded. El’Zabar, who performs most of it, plays in a way that’s intricate and complex, lacing together a number of interwoven sounds sourced from African music, Latin jazz, and funk. At times it feels like an argument for Black culture as both a consistent force in this country and a rebuke to the chaotic excesses of white supremacy’s most demonstrative displays of power. If we understand the word “politics” to mean the way we organize our mutual action, this is explicitly political music: “Now’s the time for us to collectively invoke a confluence of trust and imagination that will enlighten a future path towards ethical humanity,” El’Zabar writes in the album’s statement of purpose. It seems strange, in the waning months of 2020, to hear someone express hope for our country’s future—to suggest that anything like “ethical humanity” is still possible on a societal level. But then again, Americans have been guiding their country toward the light since the days of its broken birth. Most just weren’t called “American” at the time.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Kahil El’Zabar - America the Beautiful Music Album Reviews Kahil El’Zabar - America the Beautiful Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, November 09, 2020 Rating: 5

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