Kahil El’Zabar: Celebrating the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at 50


“Within our uniquely limited instrumentation, we can get people loud and excited,” Kahil El’Zabar says of his 50-year-old Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The occasion needed some fire. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, percussionist, cultural torchbearer and bandleader Kahil El’Zabar sat for a photo shoot in his expansive creative workspace in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. It’s a space he shares with his partner, installation artist Lucy Slivinski, and art served as the perfect kindling for the proceedings.

The inspiration came from Gjon Mili’s 1949 images of Picasso painting in light in a ceramics studio. After all, El’Zabar’s unapologetic stance as a freestanding artist isn’t a million miles from Pablo, both blazing iconoclastic trails.

In honor of the anniversary, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has released Open Me–A Higher Consciousness Of Sound And Spirit, which serves as El’Zabar’s sixth release for Spirit Muse (chasing up last year’s tribute to Don Cherry, Spirit Gatherer). It’s his second release on the label with the Ensemble, which (embracing shifting personnel and 17 releases) has toured every February during Black History Month.

Open Me bespeaks El’Zabar’s candor, a willingness to offer vulnerability or swagger. He’s the proverbial open book, which has, at times, gotten him into hot water, as exposed in the dubious but candid documentary Be Known (2015) where ill-advised choices in his personal life bit back harshly just as he was riding high, curating a successful cross-cultural series at Steppenwolf Theatre, teaching an influential interdisciplinary course at the University of Illinois and programming the ambitious African Festival of the Arts in his hometown of Chicago.

But his darkest days are long behind (at his lowest, he spent a month in jail in 2007 on a child-support felony), and throughout those travails, barring one pandemic year, he never failed to find work for the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

Now 70, El’Zabar vigorously flouts seniority. He carries his tall frame with a confident gait, ever sartorial (he designed stageware for cohorts Pharoah Sanders, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, even Freda Payne and Nina Simone), the shades a longstanding shield from junkie bandleaders of his youth, who’d otherwise deem him unhip for not partaking (his father, Big Cliff Blackburn, was a cop). And when he plays a trap set, he attacks the drums like a teenager, never holding back.

In February, at Chicago’s The Promontory, he inaugurated a marathon of one-nighters with trumpeter Corey Wilkes, a long-term comrade, and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, a relative newbie (connected through Ensemble alumnus Joe Bowie’s band Defunkt) who’s been with the group for seven years. Additionally, on selected dates the group has been augmented by the inclusion of violinist James Sanders and cellist Ishmael Ali.

At The Promontory gig, rather than coming out hot, the Ensemble built slow, the twin horns panned either side of El’Zabar atop cajon, commenced sotto voce. The chamber elements of this edition generate a meditative vibe. This salutary aspect undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of A Time For Healing (2021) a Grammy-nominated quartet session now in it’s fourth pressing, and is evident on the somewhat doleful “Can You Find A Place?” from Open Me with the tolling pendulum of amplified kalimba, ankle bell rattle, slow lowing of strings, muted trumpet and bluesy baritone saxophone.

The album and live set feature mantra compositions from the breadth of the Ensemble’s long arc, including El’Zabar’s “Return Of The Lost Tribe,” “Great Black Music” and the perennial “Ornette.”

“I wrote that in the early ’90s,” recalls El’Zabar about the latter, in conversation at his home office and studio, surrounded by percussion, piano, West African balafon, vibraphones and self-made wall art. “I first recorded it with David Murray and Olu Dara on Jug-A-Lug [DIW, 1994]. They say Kind Of Blue was the biggest jazz record, but Ornette’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come might be the most influential. Ornette found a completely new voice, accepted ridicule and judgment, yet pursued dreams of honest expression. That’s what I want with my music.”

Speaking of Coleman’s legacy, Spirit Gatherer featured the son of his collaborator Don Cherry, David Ornette, who passed after a sold-out 2022 Ethnic Heritage Ensemble tribute to Cherry in London. “Three hours after standing ovations at the Barbican, happy he’d done his thing for his dad, he died,” reflects El’Zabar.

A number of Ensemble personnel have transitioned, including Joseph Jarman, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Malachi Favors, Steve Colson and “Light” Henry Huff. The latter was a multi-reedist and naturopath, a Renaissance man whose cross-genre attitude to all music, like Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians cofounders Phil Cohran and Richard Abrams, impressed the 20-something El’Zabar.

He was eager to make an impact in Europe as had earlier AACM explorers in Paris during the ’60s. Huff and another Chicago saxophonist/clarinetist, Edward Wilkerson, rehearsed with El’Zabar, kit drummer Ben Montgomery and bassist Yosef Ben Israel in Huff’s dingy basement at 42nd and Langley.

But Ben Israel balked at El’Zabar’s transatlantic odyssey because there were no ostensible gigs booked, and he was still in college — plus, toting a contrabass then meant a double plane ticket. “Kahil was eternally optimistic,” Ben Israel recalls.

Vietnam vet Montgomery returned to Chicago for personal reasons soon after the group arrived in Europe, leaving Wilkerson, Huff and El’Zabar sans crucial rhythm section components. After shacking up in an Italian farmhouse, they eventually bagged a gig in Bologna opposite Joe Henderson. “That was defining,” El’Zabar remembers. “We realized we could hold our own, that what we were doing was valid.” The trio cut a poised, evocative and burning first disc in Italy called Impressions (Red Records), following up with Three Gentlemen From Chikago (Moers Music), another outstanding effort.

Henceforth, El’Zabar, undaunted to this day, kept the ball rolling with shifting personnel — including stalwart members Joseph Bowie and Ernest Dawkins — to record for a host of record labels such as Leo, Silkheart, Open Minds, CIMP, Katalyst and Delmark. In 1993, the group hit major leagues with the Capitol/EMI-connected Chameleon label for Dance With The Ancestors. “That only happened once, but when we were on that label, we did Charlie Rose, all the top clubs in NYC and L.A.,” he said. “It was exciting but didn’t last.”

Thanks to his fortuitous association with Thea Ioannou and Mark Gallagher at Spirit Music, he’s experiencing another moment “and it doesn’t matter whether this one lasts either, because I’m not going to last,” Kahil laughs wryly. “Things happen in cycles. Right now is great. I was named one of 10 significant emerging artists at the age of 70! As an elder artist, that people are saying what I’m doing is relevant, you want to feel that.”

Talking of cycles, Picasso postulated that the first half of life was learning to be an adult, the second half learning to be a child. Is that a sustaining principle to avoid ossifying?

“Absolutely,” concurs El’Zabar. “Despite my 50-year legacy, Open Me suggests I’m still trying to be a child, inquisitive, in the moment, open to possibilities. When I first played with Corey, Junius (Paul), Justin (Dillard) and Isaiah (Collier), I had to relearn the language of performance to be in communication with a younger peer group. I predate hip-hop and the house generation, but had to be childlike and connect these forms with the early AACM or playing with Dizzy or Pharoah to open again and enjoy what can be simplified into potent, effective statements.”

That said, Wilkes and Harding are entirely au fait with jazz history and El’Zabar revels in throwback, notably exhuming Eugene McDaniel’s “Compared To What” leaned notoriety by Les McCann’s 1969 rendition alongside a formative El’Zabar mentor in Eddie Harris.

El’Zabar’s version on Open Me is a bulbous kalimba/anklebell stomp; Harding’s bari providing bass lines as well as nodding to Harris’ tenor sax vocalizations; Wilkes referencing Benny Bailey’s inflammable trumpet with emphatic shake and growl; the strings subtle-then-slashing. Archly, the leader half-mumbles the hyperreal-then-phantasmic lyrics with Gil Scott-Heron-esque intimacy and ghosted grunts ’n’ groans. Any resemblances disavow differences in the update. His vocals are El’Zabar’s ace-in-the-hole, lending him a star power that leaves other percussionists counting sour grapes. He’s no Bill Withers but demonstrates how he can split the difference between the partials of upper and lower octaves.

El’Zabar habitually prefixes the term “avant garde” with “so-called” since, though a risk-taker, he’s always been a groover. That’s stood him well, as he’s been known to gyrate in fast R&B circles in the past, working the ’70s chitlin’ circuit with Donny Hathaway. He can drop other household names — but early on, as the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble testifies, he had the urge, beyond miscellaneous appendage on commercial gigs, to become the beating heart of his own aggregations. Epiphany, passion and instinct are watchwords for El’Zabar, yet he’s an acute strategist who knows how to get house.

“The Ethnics are not esoteric with a studied kind of audience connection,” he says. “Within our uniquely limited instrumentation, we can get people loud and excited, hold them into a feeling of dance, access entertaining aspects of joy in a performance. We seldom fail in having command of that.”

It might seem that El’Zabar is his own biggest fan — he knows he’s been an instigator — initiating the pioneering Underground Afterfests during the Chicago Jazz Festival (1978–85); chairing the AACM; co-owning Rituals Jazz Club in Chicago; hosting countless loft happenings and conducting experimental performances in numerous alternative locations; consulting with the Oakland East Side Arts Alliance; and biannually guesting as an artist-in-residence in Bordeaux for the past 20 years where he embraces visual art, dance, fashion and his large-scale Infinity Orchestra.

Despite all this, he’s had to fight for recognition.

“When I first proposed the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, a couple of labels said, ‘This dude is racist, how can jazz be ethnic?’ But I’ve never been a racist person. If you are from Nigeria, Germany, England or China, you have an ethnic heritage. Blues, jazz, funk, rock ’n’ roll, whatever you want to call it; Southern American creole food and certain influences in fashion in the last 150 years, a lot of that came directly from the African American experience.”

Realizing he still possesses a flair and charisma that sets him apart, El’Zabar encourages fans to get to his shows. “People are amazed at the levels of energy I play with at 70, but if folks want to see me like this, they better come see me now,” he says.

His debonair presence is grounded by the consistency of his beats and the distillation of his concepts; he’s also effusively generous about his fellow musicians. James Sanders, he avers, “can get in there and scrap like Billy Bang, then brings a masterful sense of structure.” He speaks highly of the “tenderness, timbre and originality” of Wilkes, Harding’s “rhythmic velocity, jovial spirit, the light he brings to the group” and the “sensitivity, flexibility and tonality” of Ishmael Ali’s cello. The latter, at 38, is the baby of the band.

“The thing that struck me with Kahil and the cats,” Ali says, “is the energy and intentionality behind everything. It’s something that drew me to free playing/improvised music, but I rarely experience in jazz generally. Everything is pointed and high-def with a steady fire behind it, ready to roar or simmer.”

Sanders, who took a fierce solo during a recent WGN TV broadcast, finds the Ensemble “intuitive and comfortable. Lots of space and respect for good fundamentals. The African grooves relate to a lot of the Afro Cuban music I play. Many of the clave concepts fit really well.”

El’Zabar refers to his fellow Ensemble road warriors as “extraordinary human beings,” who share “an enormous camaraderie.” The feel-good factor allied to acumen may still arouse the suspicion of the cognoscenti, but El’Zabar has prevailed through thick and thin and managed to establish unity amongst seven offspring from several relationships, as he proudly displays in a family photograph on his desk. “He’s Got The Hold World In His Hands” served as an encore during that show at The Promontory. It may whiff of the temporal, but it’s city-of-big-shoulders savvy from a musician steeped in the lore of Chicago jazz who was hanging with hard-living tenor titan Gene Ammons as a teenager and copping legendary shows weekly at the Regal Theatre (courtesy of his father’s second job as a security guard).

Kahil El’Zabar lived next to Emmet Till’s bereaved mom growing up and swept snow from Mahalia Jackson’s doorstep — that South Side heritage bestows deep cultural echo and imprint. Against odds, “Hang Tuff” and maintain “The Passion Dance” (two mainstays in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s setlist), notwithstanding the pressures of parenting and societal obligato.

“One thing I’m grateful for,” says El’Zabar, — whose favorite term of endearment is “Daddy-O,” perhaps evoked by “One For Daddy-O” by Cannonball Adderley, who El’Zabar worked for back in 1972 — “I didn’t make a bunch of Kahil El’Zabars. My children are all individuals. I didn’t dominate them. I know it’s real between us.”

As for Slivinski, who’s shared her life and workspace with him for 17 years, he says, “It’s a wonderful improvisation and collaboration of love.”

Wilkes has felt the same about his 19-year tenure with the Ensemble. “Since the beginning, it felt like an extended family,” he says. “It was also eye-opening to learn and develop a new concept of playing, after being under the assumption there was only one way to approach avant-garde jazz.” DB

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