Pure Improvisation Chicago's Avant-Garde Musicians Lay Down Riffs with like of Jazz Artist Kahil El'Zabar and Other Greats Nightly at Rituals

By Vitello, Barbara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Pure Improvisation Chicago's Avant-Garde Musicians Lay Down Riffs with like of Jazz Artist Kahil El'Zabar and Other Greats Nightly at Rituals


Vitello, Barbara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

"You always know less than you know more. The acceptance to opportunity creates the possibility." - Kahil El'Zabar

Inscrutable.

Experimental.

Avant-garde.

Jazz.

At its core, it is pure improvisation. Barely acknowledging conventional harmonies and meter, it is music that nevertheless manages to intoxicate.

And it lures a small but devoted contingent to Rituals to listen and watch as one of the most celebrated musicians on the progressive scene Kahil El'Zabar, conducts the vanguard of Chicago's avant-garde.

Every Tuesday, with little more than a rudimentary melody and a hint of a rhythm, El'Zabar sends his Experimental Big Band into a controlled frenzy. For lovers of free-jazz, it is nothing short of nirvana.

"This is what jazz is all about, improvisation," says Harold Platt, an urban history professor at Loyola University and avowed jazz fan. "Kahil is laying down a riff and the band is picking up on it. It's totally innovative from the word go."

It has been a long time coming. Although he is recognized around the world as a leading percussionist, composer, band leader and curator, El'Zabar and his colleagues have spent most of their careers on the fringe.

Until now.

"At the turn of the century the world is coming back to the avant-garde," El'Zabar says.

It's about time.

* * *

Several nightspots had already come and gone when Randall Sulkin and Carlo Pandero took over the South Loop club 20 months ago. And that was only their first concern. While a "scenelet" had emerged, the area was hardly a night life mecca. Furthermore, jazz clubs weren't faring too well in a town inundated by rock and blues.

"The problem is that Chicago is not New York," Sulkin says. Fans there support the scene every night of the week. Unfortunately, "Chicago doesn't have the same jazz draw."

Opening the club was a gamble, but they improved the odds considerably earlier this year after Sulkin approached El'Zabar for advice on revamping the line-up with more creative programming. They realized his vast musical knowledge and artistic vision combined with Sulkin and Pandero's business and management expertise, could elevate the club beyond the ordinary.

"I have a lot of respect for Randall and Carlo," says El'Zabar who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderly to Nina Simone and Paul Simon. "They are young men who love jazz and brought it to the community. The only thing they needed was someone who knew jazz music" and could act as a curator for the club.

In March, El'Zabar became a partner and the news elicited a buzz among jazz fans.

"The club is known throughout the city for having progressive music (that is) more experimental and on-the-edge," says Michael Herchard, 39, "and Kahil is known as a harvester (of talent) within the community."

"I always felt my peers and myself were deserving of a showcase," El'Zabar says.

The club counts nationally recognized players like Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe and David Murray as well as some of the city's most respected musicians among its headliners.

Many, however, show up unannounced, especially during the Experimental Big Band's gig. The all-star line-up of pianist Jodie Christian, saxophonist and pianist Ari Brown, sax players Ernest Dawkins, Duke Payne and Edwin Daugherty, trumpeter Robert Griffin, trombone player Isaiah Jackson, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummers Dushun Mosley and Avreeayl Ra swells when friends and colleagues like Murray, a Grammy-award winning saxophonist and singer Nona Hendricks drop by to sit in with the band. …

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