Tara’s Song

Live At The River East Art Center
Delmark DE-566

Recorded in different cities seven months apart, these CDs are connected by the presence of violinist Billy Bang and a profound respect for all variations of Black improvised music.

In addition to two originals by Brooklyn-based trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, Tara’s Song is a compendium of hip heads from Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and others. In many ways a showcase for the percussion implements of Chicago’s Kahil El’Zabar, Live At The River East Art Center, takes its inspiration from the drummer’s twin influences, Pan-Africanism and the city’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Neither CD lacks animation, and it’s a tribute to the Ebonic Tones that the nine songs the band plays in a studio don’t sound any less “live” than the five recorded by the Ritual Trio in concert. If there’s any overriding complaint about either session it’s that both groups adhere a little too closely to the timeworn head-solo-solo-head formula. But what they lack in original arrangements, they more than make up with polyrhythmic fire.

Although Bang is odd man out in two more-or-less established bands, he has such a long history with most of the other players as to fit tongue-in-groove when the music starts. He and Adullah were both in the Sun Ra Arkestra for a time and first recorded together more than 20 years ago. Drummer Andrei Strobert, who is also a producer and recording engineer, recorded Sun Ra, among many other musicians; and even bassist Alex Blake, best-known for his 30-year association with pianist Randy Weston, played with Ra at one point. Detroit-born baritone saxophonist Alex Harding is younger than the others, but besides his other gigs is a member of the post-Ra Arkestra under Marshal Allen’s direction.

Bang’s association with the Ritual Trio goes back to another live recording date with the band in 1994, since then he has often played in duo and other situations with leader El’Zabar. One of Chicago’s master improvisers, tenor saxophonist Ari Brown can hold his own with anyone from AACMers, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams to reedist Anthony Braxton, and excitingly often combines tones with Bang’s lines here. Bassist Yosef Ben Israel, who usually powers Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons band, has replaced the late Malachi Favors in this group. Favors is saluted in two of the compositions here.

Favors’ main group, The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) was one of the first to reflect the AACM ethos and the primacy of jazz that wasn’t made in New York. Instructively, Abdullah who states that “I have never believed in any one city being the origin of this music” pays tribute to a clutch of modern thinkers from elsewhere on TARA’S SONG.

Not only does the band honor Fort Worth, Tex.-born Coleman, Memphis-born Frank Lowe – another long-time Bang associate – and Ra whose roots were variously Birmingham, Ala., Chicago and Saturn, but it also doesn’t neglect less acknowledged traditions. “Iko Iko”, the traditional New Orleans chant, featuring Abdullah on trumpet and vocals, continuo honks from Harding and Bang sounding as if he’s playing a Caribbean mandolin, is a rousing postlude. More pointedly the program begins with a respectful reading of Pensacola, Fla.-born Gigi Gyrce’s “Sans Souci”. Underappreciated in the 1950s, Ebonic Tone’s arrangement shows off the swinging sophistication of this bop-tinged original.

Other tunes confirm this link between the primeval and the progressive. Lowe’s “Nothing but Love”, for instance, is suspended between Second Line march and dance-like calypso with a back beat. Blake appears to be playing an electric bass, Strobert contributes binary bounces and Harding’s solo includes cunning, understated flutter-tonguing and snorts. “Blue Monk” gets an almost Dixieland arrangement with the fiddler double stopping and the horn men crating tremolo obbligatos.

Even a nearly 13-minute version of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is launched with Latinesque, matching band beats and call-and-response patterns between trumpet and violin. Given enough space, Harding growls and keens, thrusting out repeated altissimo runs if he was jazz-R&B bari man Leo Parker; while the trumpeter brassily breaks the melody into partials and squeezed counter tones and Bang plays either country hoedown vibrations portamento or double- and triple-stopping sweeps and swoops.

Abdullah’s “The Cave” takes all these influences one step further. Programmatic, throughout it’s almost 14½ minutes, the theme redeploys from languendo to agitato and back again, with some of the voicing reminiscent of the low-flame tone poems saxophonist Gyrce used to write for himself and trumpeter Art Farmer. Earthier than Gyrce, the baritonist creates a guttural , raspy tremolo solo – without neglecting the basso timbre of the beast – while the trumpeter’s double-tongued, chromatic flourishes take nothing from Farmer. Then there’s Bang’s slithering, triple-stopping movement. By the finale, it’s obvious this cave encompasses Sun Ra-like polyharmony, as well as spikier, serpentine solo lines.

Bang’s bravura and virtuosity is confirmed on the fewer, longer selections of the other CD. With El’Zabar exercising himself on congas, kalimba and ankle tambourine however, the roots on display take in African counter-rhythms as well as polyphonic complications. Several of the compositions gain their shape from El’Zabar’s thumb piano, with off-kilter torque from Bang and slurry tremolo lines from Brown.

Since both the introductory “Big M” and the final “Oof” are written for and dedicated to Favors, the trio’s new bass man, Israel may have felt a draft. But he maintains an unruffled composure throughout and unhurriedly exposes hidden parts of the bull fiddle below the bridge and elsewhere when he takes his solo on the last number.

Like Abdullah, El’Zabar sings enthusiastically if not always melodiously, though his raison d’etre is rhythm not the poetics of Ra which the trumpeter quotes. Sometimes, the percussionist’s vocalizing is a tinge unsettling as when his grunts and whines accompany the saxophonist’s Tranesque exploration of the theme on the percussionist-penned “Return of the Lost Tribe”.

Here and on his own “Where Do You Want To Go?” Brown’s half-Swing Era smoothness and half-South Side AACM atonality harmonizes and amplifies Bang’s brazen sawing. The second tune is notable not only for Brown’s integration of licks from “Afro Blue” into his solo, but also for a dynamic display of concussive polyrhythmic strength from the El’Zabar on congas.

More a foot-tapper than a dirge, “Oof” knits together many of the themes which characterized Favors’ life with the AACM and AEC. Besides Israel’s abrasive runs, there’s more kalimba layering, and times when the violinist shrills double- and triple-stops with the saxophonist playing sensitive accompaniment – then they reverse roles. On his own, Brown buzzes double tones like an old-time blues singer, only gradually making the sounds broader and deeper. He’s joined by El’Zabar incessantly repeating “big Favors” and other phrases with different inflections and volumes, as if he was a gospel preacher, feeling the spirit in the midst of a sermon.

Both captivating CDs offer views of advanced/traditional Black improvised music, with Tara’s Song having a bit of an edge because its arrangements allow a multiplicity of voices to be heard more clearly.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Tara: 1. Sans Souci 2. Lonely Woman 3. Tara's Song 4. Nothing but Love 5. Tapestry 6. Blue Monk 7. Fate in a Pleasant Mood 8. The Cave 9. Iko Iko

Personnel: Tara: Ahmed Abdullah (trumpet and vocals); Alex Harding (baritone saxophone); Billy Bang (violin); Alex Blake (bass); Andrei Strobert (drums)

Track Listing: Live: 1. Big M 2. Return of the Lost Tribe 3. Where Do You Want To Go? 4. Be Exciting (Kahil Testifies) 5. Oof

Personnel: Live: Ari Brown (tenor saxophone); Billy Bang (violin); Yosef Ben Israel (bass); Kahil El’Zabar (drums, percussion and kalimba)