Kahil El’Zabar/David Murray: We Is: Live at the Bop Shop

Tenor saxophonist David Murray has done so much in so many contexts as a composer and bandleader, it’s easy to forget that the essence of his art is his voice as an improviser. This record is a throwback to the days when, more often than not, Murray played free. We Is presents Murray in a duo with one of jazz’s percussion masters, Kahil El’Zabar. Recorded the same day that the pair completed their 2000 album for the C.I.M.P. label, One World Family, the new CD documents a live performance at the obviously very hip Rochester, N.Y., record store the Bop Shop.

The album starts off with El’Zabar’s aptly named “Groove Allure,” a slip of spiritual-like melody played by Murray over the percussionist’s funky hand drums and vocalizations. For a saxophonist, playing duo with a drummer is harder than it looks. Without another piece to help generate melodic and/or harmonic activity, a horn player can feel like he’s doing two or three jobs at once. It’s all the more difficult when the percussionist relies on a minimal, pattern-based accompaniment as El’Zabar does here. Murray starts like he’s trying to push a train up a mountain. A few minutes in, however, his momentum begins to perpetuate itself and all is well.

Another highlight is “Blues Affirmation,” with El’Zabar on sanza; paradoxically, his approach to the small acoustic instrument reminds me of Joe Zawinul’s Fender Rhodes with Cannonball in the ’60s-or, for that matter, Ray Charles on “What’d I Say?” It’s very cool, as is “One World Family” with Murray on bass clarinet. An important aspect of Murray’s appeal on tunes like these is the way he uses blues tonality as a touchstone. He goes way out, but the blues never leaves. Murray’s been hotter, but it’s great to hear him again in a stripped-down context. And it’s great to hear El’Zabar, period.