Essentially the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (sans guitarist Fareed Haque and trumpeter Corey Wilkes) augmented by a careening 39-piece orchestra in concert, Kahil El’Zabar’s Infinity Orchestra sounds pretty much like what you’d expect it to: dense big-band arrangements with extended improvisations, laden with African rhythms and embellished with traditional African instrumentation. However, El’Zabar does throw a kink into the mix by adding a turntablist and a couple of MCs to the swell of saxophones, trombones, trumpets and drums to provide a more modern ambience.
The Infinity Orchestra—an ensemble from southwest France’s Aquitaine region whose members far outnumber even those of Sun Ra’s Arkestra—prove a worthy extension to the already solid core of percussionist El’Zabar (who spends two months every year teaching in the Aquitaine capital of Bordeaux), alto saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and trombonist Joseph Bowie. Their name even perfectly suits El’Zabar’s compositions, which are designed for maximum improvisatory exploration, due mostly to their cyclical rhythmic nature. “Soul to Groove” opens the concert with a disjointed drumbeat sparring with a sputtering turntable, as a DJ slowly scratches. The whole piece relies heavily on percussive drive but is rudely interrupted by the screeching high-register wails of tenor saxophonist Arnaud Rouanet.
The 24-minute “Speaking in Tongues” comes closest to an Ethnic Heritage piece with El’Zabar’s hypnotic balafon solo introducing the composition, reappearing in the middle after numerous hard-bop solos pepper a Mingus-esque arrangement. The album’s centerpiece, which is also the title track, marries jazz with various folk forms from Africa, Europe, the United States and the West Indies, reflecting the ease in which disparate musical ideas travel around the world—and especially how they traverse the music of Kahil El’Zabar.