The good stuff will find you. If you keep your eyes and ears open, if you carefully select your sources of input and honestly weigh the recommendations, and if you have patience, you will find beautiful things in life. This goes for music as well as for anything else, and for me I can think of no happier accident than the first time I heard Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio playing the opening track on Big M: A Tribute to Malachi Favors.
The encounter took place during my days at Rasputin's, or rather, my nights, since my part-time status landed me with a lot of closing shifts. This night in particular found me in the basement, that dusty quadrant of the store where we held most of the vinyl, as well as all of the classical, jazz, blues, and country. That beautiful basement was the setting for many meaningful discoveries during my few months of employment, since whoever was in charge of that section could request a specific CD to be played from a fat catalog of basement-themed discs. Sometimes I would tinker, sometimes I would go with the flow — one night, Big M just happened to be playing when I came down the stairs to start putting things out.
It began with a bass line, classic jazz in style and yet grounded in a solid funk groove, while the drums tapped and danced around it. This held on long enough to move the hips of any listener, and having achieved its hypnotism, the sax and violin came in as one. They blasted their melody, and would then take turns with variations, back and forth, pausing now and again to let the bass and drums strengthen their hold on the audience. For six sweet minutes and twenty-six sacred seconds, Kahil and Co. played a music soulful and strong: the name of the song, I found after scrambling around the computer desk and the blue-coded Jazz section, was “Crumb-Puck-U-Lent.” It was this song that first got me into these guys; this song that I've played at many parties and subsequently burnt onto blank CDs for many friends; this song that displays so much of what today's jazz can offer. If you have six minutes to spare, listen to it somewhere: iTunes, Rhapsody, wherever you kids get your tunes these days.
For a seven-track album, the band's got a lot of variety: meltingly mellow tracks like “OOF” and “Big M,” piano jams like “Freedom Flexibility,” and bony drum-driven tracks like “Maghoustut.” But with a man as drum-savvy as Kahil El'Zabar at the wheel, and with Ari Brown's keyboard and tenor sax jumping all over Yosef Ben Israel's bass rhythms, and with the totally-at-home inclusion of violinist Billy Bang, no track stays in one place for long. The four musicians hand off the central attention and entwine their duets so gracefully, playing around and through one another's sound in ways that jazz does best. This melodic and improvisational interweaving is most impressive on the longer tracks, 10+ minute-long pieces like the vibrant “Kau” and the honorary “Malachi” that never seem long or dull, rather enchanting the listeners with trustworthy grooves and spicy spontaneity.
Nobody else I know had ever heard of the album or the band beforehand. Big M won no major awards nor placed on any Top 20 list that I know of. Scott Yanow of Allmusic.com gave it a one-paragraph review and 3½ stars; it isn't even listed on Kahil El'Zabar's Wikipedia entry. I met this music the only way possible: by following some benevolent destiny, or by sheer dumb luck. What matters most is that I had my ears, eyes, and mind open at the time, ready to receive something really good at a moment's notice. Give it a listen — perhaps I've introduced you to the good stuff, too.