“Summertime and the living is easy.” That’s how that old Gershwin song goes, right? Well, if you were alive and aware during the summer of 2020, you know that the living was anything but easy. The hollow, searching tone of Corey Wilkes’ trumpet as it articulates the main melody of the Kahil El’Zabar Quartet’s new version of “Summertime,” as well as the dirge-like cadence set by El’Zabar’s percussion, captures the pain and desolation of that dark season. The performance comes at the end of A Time for Healing and functions as a stark reminder of why El’Zabar and company created the restorative space of this album in the first place.
Each of the quartet’s members—El’Zabar, Wilkes, saxophonist Isaiah Collier, and keyboardist Justin Dillard—also holds some sort of percussion credit across the album’s nine tracks. El’Zabar thus draws the music back to Congo Square and even further, to West African spiritual practice. See how the group moves from the kalimba- and sax-driven meditation of “Urban Shaman” to the cajón- and keyboard-driven fusion funk of “Eddie Harris” to “The Coming of Spring,” a slow-simmering hard-bop number that could just as easily be found on an Art Blakey record.
Beyond “Summertime,” it’s another cover on A Time for Healing—“Resolution,” part two of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme—that exemplifies El’Zabar’s vision to those unfamiliar with his work. If Trane’s original “Resolution” was composed of fire and pushed on by the flaming tongue of the Holy Spirit, El’Zabar’s is made of water. While Wilkes and Collier come in hot, El’Zabar and Dillard create a more tranquil foundation, like that of a baptismal fountain. This lets the listener slip comfortably into the music, feeling the flow of the quartet’s ideas, its resolve, and the deep spiritual renewal that it intends.