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Live Music Review Joe McPhee at Cafe Oto and Kahil El'zabar at Ronnie Scotts

AT CAFE OTO in Dalston, 82-year-old Floridian multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee introduced his performance with the Decoy Quartet by saying: “Thank you very much for extending my childhood.”

You could hear the whole century of jazz sound in McPhee’s first excruciating volley of tenor saxophone notes. After two pandemic years it was as if the spirits of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Coltrane and Ornette were rising above the darkening skies of Dalston.

With him were three English nonpareils creating a relentless sound of roaring unity: drummer Steve Noble’s rampaging toms and rattling cymbals; John Edwards’s throbbing, cavorting bass coming as if from the Earth’s centre, and the churchlike yet secular glory of Alexander Hawkins’s Hammond B3 organ, like a merry-go-round of now-times musical truth.

They played to a packed house, the Cafe Oto’s doors wide open to the streets outside, as if they too claimed this intensely human music longing to be free as their own, for it was as if it were the soundscape of an era recreating itself after a long, long night.

At Ronnie Scott’s you marvelled that just three musicians could forge such a mass of surging sound, as Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s extraordinary trio. El’Zabar, born Clifton Blackburn Jr in 1953, spent his late teens studying African music at the University of Ghana.

He returned to take a leading musical role in his home city, and has been fusing African and African-American sounds ever since, using kalimba thumb piano, earth and trap drums, combining with diverse musicians from Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder and Archie Shepp.

At Ronnie’s his confreres were Hammond Organ virtuoso Justin Dillard and the scathing vibrato of tenor saxophonist Isaiah Collier.

El’Zabar’s kalimba notes cut through Dillard’s groundswell of bluesy chords and Collier’s staccato horn lyricism, complemented by the pounding message of the leader’s earth drums.

As El’Zabar recalled and paid homage to his Chicago mentors like “the electrifying” saxophonist Eddie Harris, it was as if for one night Ronnie’s had morphed to a Chicago ’hood as its sounds blew starkly through the Soho night.


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