Kahil El’Zabar – America the Beautiful


Title: America the Beautiful 
Artist: Kahil El’Zabar
Label: Spiritmuse
Formts: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: October 23, 2020


Chicago musician and composer Kahil El’Zabar, former chairman of the legendary AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) collective, is also known as a pioneer of spiritual jazz. A master multi-percussionist and instrumentalist, El’Zabar founded the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble in 1973, the Ritual Trio a decade later, and other ensembles including JUBA Collective, the Kahil El’Zabar Quartet, and more recently the Ethnics featuring Nona Hendryx. His new release, Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful, was inspired by music he scored for Daryl Roberts’s award-winning three-part documentary series, America the Beautiful (2007-2014). Joining El’Zabar on these selections are a number of notable Chicago musicians, including cellist Tomeka Reid, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, alto saxophonist Dennis Winslett, and the late baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, to whom this recording is dedicated.

El’Zabar’s vision for this project is to reflect what America the Beautiful has become, building upon his original soundtrack to provide a musical commentary on these turbulent times, from the raging pandemic to the brutal deaths of Black men and women. Opening with an instrumental version of the title track, the ensemble sets the tone with a sometimes dissonant and often bluesy rendition of the patriotic song. El’Zabar is joined by percussionists Babu Atiba and Ernie Adams, the James Sanders String Quartet, bassist Joshua Ramos and keyboardist Miguel de la Cerna on “Jump and Shout (For Those Now Gone),” a delightful mid-tempo groove enhanced by African rhythms and improvised strings. “Express Yourself” conveys the joy of Black musical creativity, while the steady forward thrust of “Freedom March” showcases Bluiett’s wide ranging solo on bari sax. Shifting from the secular to the sacred, “That We Ask of Our Creator” is a work of shimmering beauty as Wilkes’ bluesy trumpet weaves in and around the string quartet, followed by the more minimalist, free-form “Prayers for Unwanted Suffering” featuring El’Zabar on flute.

The album concludes with a more subversive rendition of “America the Beautiful,” this time sung and spoken by El’Zabar, who often seems to mock the vision of America presented in the 19th century lyrics that speak to the “land of the free.” In the album trailer, El’Zabar says he hopes his music encourages “aspirations toward the possibilities” that America presents, while also offering “an inspired space of engagement” where listeners can connect to what they are hearing on a deeper level. He goes on to say that during the pandemic, “We’re in our house, we can’t go anyplace. We’re no longer hugging and touching, so let the music take you. Let us get outside of ourselves while we’re inside, so when we come back outside, we’re ready to make a move different than we had, because history has shown we got to do something different.” Amen to that!

Kahil El’Zabar’s America the Beautiful is an extremely approachable work, presenting thought-provoking and spiritually uplifting music that soothes but also pushes us to be more, do more, and create a vision for a better tomorrow. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss