A president who runs on lies, a people more divided than ever, exacerbated racial tensions, an unprecedented health crisis… One wonders if the eminent percussionist Kahil El’Zabar isn’t being ironic, opening his new album with a rereading of the patriotic anthem “America the Beautiful”. As he’s a wise old man who once served as president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, and was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, it’s easy to imagine that he’s chosen to respond to the current state of affairs with hope instead of cynicism and resentment. This hope is present throughout this record, one of the most ambitious works of his long and rich career.
In addition to the percussion and flute played by the master, the orchestra he’s assembled here includes a bass, keyboards, and brass and wind sections. The fabulous cellist Tomeka Reid, violinists Samuel Williams and James Sanders, baritone saxophone pioneer Hamiet Bluiett (who died shortly after participating in this recording), and above all the very gifted trumpeter Corey Wilkes, who gives us a few solos full of juice. The juxtaposition of the sublime orchestrations imagined by El’Zabar with his dynamic rhythms inherited from Africa makes the listener want to dance among the stars.
The programme is made up of the musician’s new compositions – all excellent – and covers chosen for editorial purposes: “Express Yourself” (Charles Wright’s classic, later sampled by NWA), “How Can We Mend a Broken Heart” (a song created by the Bee Gees but gracefully revisited by Al Green) and the cult track “Afro Blue”, whose present version is breathtakingly beautiful. The whole thing ends with a cover of the hymn that provides the title of the album, this time sung by El’Zabar himself. America the Beautiful is one of the most beautiful responses an artist could offer to the turbulent climate that’s raging among our southern neighbours at the moment.