A Fireside Chat with Kahil El'Zabar
AAJ: A shame.
KE: It is a travesty.
AAJ: What was your vision behind the formation of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?
KE: It was in '73 and it was upon returning from Africa and a desire to make a statement that was inclusive of my heritage as well as my contemporary lineage. The Ethnic was developed as a larger group, originally of about thirteen people, including Don Moye and a couple of other percussionists and it became a quintet for about two years. We went to Europe in '76 and we recorded a record in Italy and in Germany and what happened was that we lost the bassist and other drummer. It ended up being the three of us and we had developed this book of music that I had written and we wanted to continue and we decided that since we were the guys that had hung through everything, that that's what it would become and it became this two horns and a drum. So it came down to the three of us and then we had Kalaparusha after that and then Joe Bowie and then Wilkerson left about three years ago and Ernest Dawkins, who is a former student of mine and he's been a wonderful replacement for Edward. Recently, we added Harold Murray on a record called Continuum. We are trying to keep going.
AAJ: And how does that led to the advent of the Ritual Trio?
KE: The Ritual Trio were actually guys that I had played with even before Wilkerson and Bowie. They are like my big brothers. I was on the bandstand with both Ari and Malachi in '68 and '69 and they were teaching me how to swing and the dynamics and just learning how to play this music, not in the Ritual Trio, but in various situations, I would encounter them and they would share with me and in '80, we did the original recording for Sound Aspects with Lester Bowie and Malachi and it was about working with my mentors in a pure situation, which I have tried to do in various sets and give respect to the continuum of generations sharing in the dialogue of this creative music. When the Ritual Trio comes together, it is about creating this moment that has a sense of sacrament to the purity of creating music, coming out of the idea of swing, whereas with the Ethnic, it is much more in the polyphonic relationship associated with kind of the transition of African music into the language of Africans in America. I'm very fortunate, Fred, in that there are musicians, who are some of the greatest musicians in the world, who happen to be my friends and have been patient with me with my various projects and ideas and have helped me make those projects happen.
AAJ: Let's touch on your most recent Ritual Trio record with Pharoah Sanders.
KE: Well, you have got Malachi Favors, who actually played the last gig with Coleman Hawkins before he passed. You have got Ari Brown, who has been in both the McCoy Tyner band and Elvin Jones' bands and Chicago has always been known for having great rhythm sections, people like Wilbur Ware and Jack DeJohnette developed his chops as a pianist and a drummer here in Chicago and Steve McCall and what he did in terms of pulse and translating that music in the Seventies and Eighties and no one has given Steve recognition for being a link for what happened from Sunny Murray on the outside and cats like Billy Higgins on the inside of swing. That sound that is related to creating a groove and keeping an open space at the same time, that is what we've worked on with the Ritual Trio for years and so there is a fraternity in terms of those ideas. Shepp and Pharoah, they express things in very different ways, but they get to the crux with a certain honesty of expression that is an important lesson in terms of these very talented young technical musicians, that if they could lend themselves to some of the inherent qualities that we have in our hearts and can bring that out with that technique, that is what both these cats do so well. I'm really proud of both of those records. They are very different, but at the same time there is a continuity that is there.
AAJ: And let's not forget the heavy record in CIMP with Bluiett.
KE: Oh, thank you, Fred. Bluiett is very under-recognized, but it's the baritone so.
AAJ: Let's talk about this venue that you are developing.
KE: It is called the Ascension Gallery and Performance Space. It is my fourth performance space. In the late Seventies, when I came back from Europe, I opened a space. Then I opened a place called Rituals, that was a club in downtown Chicago, where everybody played, Blythe, David Murray, James Newton, my bands, everybody played. I closed that after three years and then I opened a restaurant that had music and food. This next space that I am doing is a space working with predominantly young artists, a lot of indie rock musicians and I am trying to do what Jarman and Malachi Favors did for me. They created situations in order for me to develop as a musician. At this point, I can kind of afford the situation that I'm doing. I learned from younger artists. We are working with spoken word artists, hip hop artists. We are working with older jazz and creative improvisers. But the idea is creating a new audience and that new audience I think is within the internet and the email mailing lists. That technology has brought about an insular community. I think it can be reversed when we create and work with that and we can create a community that once again comes out publicly and fills a certain comradeship with one another and we can use it without spending as much money in advertising and media in order to develop this new following that I think exists. If you think about that college radio is the only true outlet for alternative music right now. So since we have so many wonderful young people who are diligent to the task of exposing their communities to what exists, that they may not find in popular forms of media, then we need to support that and create environments where they can create. So it is the Ascension Gallery and Performance Space based on Coltrane's great composition, "Ascension," which is what we are doing. We're trying to aspire. We are trying to ascent.