Alika Rising is a precious, 1989 recording from what may not necessarily be the “best” version of Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio, if such a thing could be said to exist. This is, after all, art. Yet, this may be the most iconic, or at least formative version. Kahil, with Ari Brown and the late, great Malachi Favors. Over 50 minutes, for three extended improvisations in which the artists with deep understandings of each other reached for that moment. That transcendent moment in which all three find the same groove within each others’ playing, and bring the audience into the moment. It is what makes listening to Kahil the kind of experience one only gets from a select few artists. There are many kinds of greatness. Transcendence, and the ability to bring that about through music, that is Kahil’s greatness.
El’Zabar’s career has seen many transformations since 1989, jazz has transformed, and one can listen to Alika Rising in many ways. As an early recording for the Ritual Trio, it helped establish Kahil’s sound, and demonstrated that he was on his path quite early. It showed his potential. The audience can hear his growth since 1989. The audience can listen to what was, when Kahil and Malachi were together. But most of all, this set of three long-form pieces is just deep, deep, deep. There is something special that happens when the right musicians play together. Kahil El’Zabar is one of the most fascinating percussionists of our time, but there are many great artists who probably would not gel with him. Try to imagine a meeting between Kahil and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings. They’d have no meeting ground, as they aren’t even in the same genre. Even many jazz greats wouldn’t gel with Kahil. Kurt Rosenwinkel? Not likely.
On the other hand, Kahil, Ari & Malachi were as sympatico as a group could get. So for as much joy as we can derive from listening to Kahil’s refinements as a musician since 1989, there is as much to be found in the fact that this trio was a trio that simply worked. Like Coltrane, Tyner, Jones and Garrison, it wasn’t just that they were great, but that they were great together. Put Oscar Peterson in that group, and as amazing as he was, the group wouldn’t have worked. You wouldn’t have gotten A Love Supreme. That’s not to say that McCoy Tyner is objectively better than Oscar Peterson, nor worse. It is merely to say that the group was the thing. The group here is the thing. Alika Rising is special, and precious because El’Zabar, Brown, and Favors just got each other at a level that nobody else could.
That is why these three long-form pieces reach so deeply, and reach into the listener so deeply. Everything that makes an El’Zabar album special is here. The tight grooves on African percussion, the space for it to be felt, the exploratory work by lead players who go just far enough to lead the listener on a journey, but never too far to stray from the soul of what Kahil lays down. This is special music.