|Kahil El'Zabar's discography and influence has grown exponentially since he first held down a group with Billy Bang (a member of El'Zabar's Ritual Trio in its formative years); the latter half of the nineties alone saw him extend the scope of his main working unit through the addition of such jazz luminaries as Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, building even more tangible connections between his native AACM and the Fire Music tradition of the 60s. But El'Zabar has also renewed connections with some of his earliest collaborators as well, releasing material and giving performances with both Bang (as part of the Tri-Factor group with Hamiet Bluiett) and David Murray over the last couple of years.
Spirits Entering finds El'Zabar and Bang making a go at the uncommon violin/percussion duo and, by way of El'Zabar's customary arsenal of percussive instruments, pulling a myriad of voices from the seemingly limiting instrumentation. El'Zabar switches between loose trap kit pulsations, safari-invoking hand drums and crystalline thumb piano rhythms to provide a shifting set of locales for Bang's fluid violin. Although he's free to take the pieces just about anywhere in the absence of an imposed harmonic structure, it's a testament to Bang's virtuosity that he consistently keeps melody close at hand—even in freewheeling workouts like "2 Was Now". Elsewhere, Bang's angular glide lends exotic imagery to the proceedings; "Sweet Irene", "Dream Merchant" and "The Ituri Fantasy" (where El'Zabar's birimbau lends a distinctly gypsy elasticity) all conjure particularly strong visions of North Africa and the Middle East. Even when they appear to meander a bit—as on the disconnected narcissism of "Song Of Myself"—El'Zabar and Bang are able to reconnect in fleeting moments of brilliant horsehair static.
The only possible misgiving raised by this session is its almost utter predictability—especially in the context of El'Zabar's previously recorded output. But even if the percussionist's penchant for revisiting some of his tried and true compositions dilutes a degree of spontaneity from the disc's overall impact, the stripped-down violin/drums format more than makes up for the lack of surprise in the sheer ingenuity with which Bang and El'Zabar pull it off. - Derek Taylor
Recorded at Riverside Studio, Chicago, Illinois on May 24-25, 1998. Includes liner notes by Howard Mandel.