African heritage and culture has been a fundamental facet of jazz music since its beginnings. The earliest rags of Buddy Bolden’s era were infused with variants of these traditions just as today’s creative Black music relies upon them for similar sustenance and direction. Few musicians reference these traditions as seriously and reverently as Chicagoan Kahil El’Zabar. Since he started forming his first collectives in the early 70s his music has been inextricably entwined with African ethnicity and consciousness. The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is one of his oldest working groups and like his others has seen numerous personnel changes throughout its decades long existence. The current line-up is one of the strongest to date and El’Zabar and his associates take full advantage of the sonic clarity of the CIMP Spirit Room to document their musical message.
El’Zabar’s first trip to the Spirit Room was with one of his other working groups, The Ritual Trio with Malachi Favors and Ari Brown (‘Jitterbug Junction’ also on CIMP). That initial visit was marked by tragedy in the theft of his large collection of African percussion instruments. The miraculous return of these priceless possessions shortly after the date left a lasting impression on El’Zabar which was rekindled by his return to Redwood, this time with the EHE. All four men sound refreshed with a relaxed inertial energy throughout the entire disc and they run through El’Zabar’s compositions with a palpable sense of their African origins at the forefront of their approach. The majority of the pieces have appeared in different incarnations on early albums and it’s interesting to hear the versions represented here.
The Ensemble’s unique instrumentation lends itself amazing well to the highly rhythmic patterns of El’Zabar’s arrangements. Percussion is frequently the emphasis and El’Zabar and Murray stitch a loose and constantly fluctuating patchwork of rhythms for Dawkins and Bowie to move in concert with. The beginning “Papa’s Bounce,” dedicated in part to El’Zabar’s father works off an earthy percussive foundation supplied by hand drums and shakers. Dawkins and Bowie each take solid solos prior to a spotlight on the percussionists’ interlocking rhythms. El’Zabar shifts to traditional trap set on “Dance’m” and the group settles into a more swing-induced groove thanks to his Buddy Rich-like ferocity on the cymbals. Bowie sets up a recurring foghorn sonority on the opening section of “Song of Myself” and El’Zabar pushes things along rhythmically with sly, syncopated drum work. Africanisms again come to the fore on the beautiful reading of “Blue Rwanda” where Murray and El’Zabar’s felicitous hand percussion and chanting tills a fertile soil for Bowie and Dawkins to blossom out of with lively solos. “Spirit Dancer” and “Sunshine Serenade” afford a chance to hear El’Zabar’s mesmerizing thumb piano in action and both serve as exquisite examples of his mastery of this hauntingly beautiful instrument. As a whole this disc radiates a love and respect for African traditions that will enrich the ears of any listener willing to explore it’s bountiful expanses.