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Kahil El’Zabar/Billy Bang: Spirits Entering

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Here’s an album of violin-percussion duets, and once you adjust to the unusual instrumentation, the music proves engaging, often charming and clever. Bang is an attractive violinist with genuine melodic gifts and a sophisticated feeling for improvised form. Like fellow violinist Leroy Jenkins, there’s a strain of folk music in his phrasing (his long-toned lines in “Golden Sea”); like saxophonist (not violinist) Ornette Coleman, he likes to form solos using motivic developments; moreover, the title piece (by Bang) sounds like an early Coleman tune. He likes to introduce tension by playing at a somewhat faster tempo than Zabar. Hearing “Love Outside of Dreams,” with its melancholy theme and then Bang’s climax-ordered solo structure, we might wish he were an entire string section; in an opposite piece, “The Ituri Fantasy,” he becomes a gypsy player, with mournful droops and pathetic flourishes.

Zabar’s best drumming is his freest, on the two opening tracks. On most pieces he evokes exotic rhythms (African? Middle Eastern?) on either conga or thumb piano; these tend to austerity, though he works up a head of steam in his thumb piano solo “The Dream Merchant.” Much of this album’s variety results from the songs he composed and from his playing with or against Bang; these two musicians have a pleasing give-and-take. “2 Was Now” is a sinister piece, with Bang repeating short phrases; he plays softly, sparely and sensitively in “Song of Myself” while Bang creates intimate lines. Only “Old Time Religion,” with a Zabar vocal, meanders, and even that has a bit of swinging violin.