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Kahil El’Zabar Quartet: What It Is!

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Veteran percussionist Kahil El’Zabar here leads a group of young Chicago lions, and the mash-up of maturity and youthful panache seems to have sparked inspiration on both sides of the generational divide.

What It Is! includes five originals and two Trane standards (“Central Park West,” “Impressions”). El’Zabar may not be the world’s most deft technician: His busywork fusillades threaten to weigh down “Impressions,” although they’re redeemed by tenorman Kevin Nabors’ explosive energy and pianist Justin Dillard’s personalized, Tyner-esque shadings. But his variegated textures and timbres create a lush, even welcoming ambiance throughout most of the set. Dillard spices up the mix with B3-organ soul-jazz seasoning; bassist Junius Paul prods with both exuberance and finesse, equal parts post-funk strut and deep-pocket swing; and Nabors tops things off with his distinctive blend of melodicism and sass.

On the title track, El’Zabar’s Africanist hand drumming sets an appropriate tone for his lyric message of hope and perseverance, which he delivers in a molasses-rich baritone reminiscent of the late Gil Scott-Heron. On “Song of Myself,” Nabors alternates between extended lines and quickstep flurries set at challenging harmonic juxtapositions against Dillard’s B3 splays and stabs.

As Howard Mandel’s liner notes assure us, this music is “neither avant-garde nor old guard.” It’s unselfconsciously both contemporary and roots-rich, and it resonates with the joy of invention.

Originally Published