Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Khalil El’ Zabar and Hamiett Bluiett . Sanctuary for Independent Media, Troy NY, June 9, 2007.

Truly, were they only a duo? Percussionist Khalil El’ Zabar alone was at times responsible for up to three simultaneously independent musical parts. When he stood to keep time with ankle bells, play the kalimba, and sing, he was a trio. Add baritone sax player, Hamiett Bluiett, and you have a quartet. If you paid attention to El' Zabar's right foot as he accented the second and fourth beats of the bar, then you had five parts.

Apart from a witty rendition of Take the A Train, and the encore, sung by El' Zabar a capella, all the tunes, although unannounced, I suspect were El' Zabar's own. They were modal, and slightly tinged with a Middle Eastern, or African flavor. As El Z played drums and sang, Blueiett would double the melody before taking solos. Mr. B's solos at times evoked a violin's raspy upper register. Coincidentally, he was filling in for violinist Billy Bang who was ill. His bari was cradled in a stand as he played, so he could just walk up, lay his fingers on the keys, and blow. When finished, he would just sit down in an swivel chair, smile and visibly enjoy El Z's emotive performance. Bluiett took one extended solo by himself, wherein he employed all kinds of extended techniques: multiphonics, circular breathing, percussive key tapping, and vocalizing into the mouth piece.

A master at anything in the percussion family, El' Zabar is a performer who practically turns himself inside out when he performs. His head swung from side to side as if it were on a hinge while he played the kalimba, or thumb piano. His kalimba was amplified, and although you can only use your thumbs to play it, he managed to have a melody with chordal accompaniment emerge simultaneously. He expresses himself not only musically, but vocally, with impulsive exclamations, and his entire body is involved in the projection of his interior being. He acts possessed, but not by devils. This is a man controlled by beneficent spirits of positive force. At times it felt as if El Z. was leading a revival meeting, and he did have a message to deliver. He would stand, clap his hands, sway and extemporize on staying positive in these bleak times. He reminded us that although there have always been warmongers in history, those of us who want peace are in the majority. It's easier to be pessimistic, we have to work on finding the positive. "You have a responsibility to dream!" he called to us.

El' Zabar offered an amusing anecdote about when he, Bluiett, and Billy Bang played the Apollo theater as a trio. Wynton Marsalis thought El' Zabar was trying to sneak into the theater for free until he was informed that El' Zabar was actually performing that night. Bill Cosby was the MC, and when he saw El' Zabar's trio, he asked, "Where's your band?" After their set, Cosby asked them, "What do you call that kind of music?"

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