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Kahil El'Zabar brings us into 'A Time For Healing' with an absorbing mini-documentary

Christopher Andrews
Stoptime Chicago

“This project is about getting through this,” Kahil El’Zabar says in reference to his new album, A Time For Healing, without needing to specify what “this” is. “We’re on the dawn of a new day, coming into the light through this darkness.”

The album, released this month on the Spiritmuse label, finds El’Zabar — the veteran percussionist and bandleader, a stalwart member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — leading an energetic new quartet. Along with trumpeter Corey Wilkes, the group features two fresh talents from the Chicago scene, saxophonist Isaiah Collier and keyboardist Justin Dillard.

A documentary short about the album, which premieres here at WBGO, features commentary from the musicians as well as footage from the studio — notably of “Eddie Harris,” titled in tribute to the Chicago-born tenor saxophone and keyboard hero.

The making of 'A Time for Healing' - Kahil El'Zabar Quartet

Along with a window onto the recording session, which took place in December of 2020, the short film creates a space for El’Zabar and his younger colleagues to expound on their aesthetic intentions. “This universe we live in is vibrational, whether you feel it or not,” attests Wilkes. “You could call it ‘avant-garde,’ you could say ‘spiritual jazz.’ It’s still about ‘is.’ All the ‘is-ness.’ Improvised soul, at the end of the day, because those are the main components: improvising and playing from the heart.”

Improvised soul, in fact, has become a preferred term for the musicians in El’Zabar’s circle. One track on the album invokes the phrase via its present-tense acronym, “Time IS.” Among the other highlights are thoughtful new interpretations of John Coltrane’s “Resolution” (from A Love Supreme) and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

“We want to keep the idea of ‘improvised soul’ as New Chicago,” says El’Zabar. “So there are many groups that are coming out of this idea that it’s not one genre, but the collective expression of the history in the music and the future of this music, through tolerant acceptance of concepts, ideas, values and histories that can blend together in new ways for an upliftment to communities across the world.”

A Time For Healing is available now from Spiritmuse Records.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.