Kahil El’Zabar’s music hinges on the drummer/percussionist’s paroxysms. He gets himself into a groaning, head-swiveling (and mesmerizing) trance, seeming almost to lose control—except he never misses a beat on drums, kalimba, or whatever he’s playing. Spirit Groove, which places him in a quartet with frequent collaborator David Murray on tenor sax, is a fine example of this style—but also of its limitations in the studio.
Both are clear from the 20-minute-plus opener “In My House.” El’Zabar works into a foot-stamping groove on kalimba and bells, with the attendant grunts and raw soul singing. Yet he has to attenuate that groove for pianist Justin Dillard, then again for Murray’s entrance with a gorgeous long-tone solo. El’Zabar’s vocal utterances remain impassioned but quieter—either his microphone is turned down or he’s moved away from it. It’s less direct, less affecting, in a way that doesn’t happen in the close environment of a jazz club. The same is true on “Katon” and “In the Spirit,” beautiful compositions and performances whose meditative miens better suit the restraints but still feel diminished.
Some tracks were recorded live, as is clear even without the crowd noise. El’Zabar is unfettered, more robust in his ejaculations (“Open up the door! Open up the door!”), on Murray’s “Necktar,” even as he competes with both Murray and Dillard (on electric piano). On the mellow funk “One World Family,” he’s still low in the mix—about the same level as bassist Emma Dayhuff—but his stream of growls is the tune’s backbone. It suggests that the drawback of the studio is not the medium itself, but the lack of audience energy on which El’Zabar can feed. In short, Spirit Groove is both a worthy document of El’Zabar’s music and a reminder that recordings in jazz are always second-best.