Kahil El'Zabar: Urban Bushman

Kurt Gottschalk By

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When Chicago percussionist Kahil El'Zabar rolls into town this month—a nicely more common occurrence in recent years—it will be with one of his longest-standing bands. And it will occur at an unusual, but highly appropriate, venue. Rather than the usual jazz club date he ordinarily plays, El'Zabar will appear at S.O.B's, the city's largest and best known club for so-called 'world music.'

It's a ridiculous name for a genre, but an apt one for El'Zabar's blend of African rhythms and jazz freedom. His stage wear, the bells on his ankles and his big drums all create the appearance of—to borrow a phrase from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a band with whom his career has long been interlaced—the "urban bushman. And the simple melodies, built from a few tones suggested by the drums, of his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble not only represent some of his strongest work, but his commitment to maintaining relationships and moving forward. The band has carried on for three decades, an anniversary they're marking this year with a 30th anniversary CD to be released in May on Delmark Records.

"Today it's difficult to have bands that stay together, El'Zabar said in an interview last summer, when he appeared at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival with one of his newer bands, Tri-Factor, with Billy Bang and Hamiet Bluiett. "When you think about Coltrane's quartet or Miles' groups, relationships are an important part of warmth in music. There's a quality in the music that you can feel.

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble dates back to 1976, when El'Zabar was fresh out of his education with Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. By that time, he had already spent time apprenticing with the greats, having played with Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Eddie Harris and Cannonball Adderley, among others. "I paid my dues in what people call the 'straight ahead' music way before Wynton and all of that, he said. Still, the group—a quartet then, with saxophonists Ed Wilkerson and Light Henry Huff and Yosef ben Israel on bass—opened to mixed reviews on a European tour where they opened for Joanne Brackeen. Although the Art Ensemble (at bassist Malachi Favors' suggestion) had already been playing in African clothing and face paint, overt Afro-centrism was still new in jazz. And Ethnic Heritage—even further from what most people thought of as 'jazz' than the Art Ensemble's sound—were seen by some as pushing an agenda too far. But they carried on. When ben Israel left the band, they continued as two horns and percussion, solidifying their sound as well, perhaps, as the ritualistic perception.

That instrumentation—now filled out by Ernest Dawkins (leader of the New Horizons Ensemble) on saxophone and Corey Wilkes (trumpeter in the most recent Art Ensemble lineup)—lasts through to today, although the S.O.B.'s appearance will include guest guitarist Fareed Haque, who played on their 1999 release Freedom Jazz Dance (Delmark).

The band released its first record in 1981, the now out-of-print Three Gentlemen from Chicago, on the German label Moers-Music, and put out discs on two other European labels, Leo and Silkheart (as well as one for the American imprint CIMP), before El'Zabar established what has proven to be a fruitful relationship with the Chicago label Delmark. At the same time he was leading the Ritual Trio and some less documented groups, such as Orchestra Infinity, and playing regularly with saxophonist David Murray. Throughout his various projects, the drum patterns—often built from the cadence of a name or short phrase—have propelled the projects and some three dozen records as leader or co-leader.

Life has a way of cycling around, especially when bands continue for decades. Ritual Trio—which El'Zabar has led for more than 20 years—has survived the loss of Favors, with Yosef ben Israel now on bass.

"Yosef goes with me all the way to the beginnings of our development and now it goes full circle, El'Zabar said. "His approach from a solo perspective is different than Malachi's, but the earthy tone is a complement to the whole sound.

Israel appeared on the group's most recent record Live at the River East Art Center. The trio is rounded out by the vastly underrated saxophonist Ari Brown and for the date included violinist Billy Bang, another longtime El'Zabar collaborator. It marks a new sound for El'Zabar, at once softer with the addition of ben Israel's more melodious playing, and rawer; seemingly untouched, the disc comes off like a bootleg audience recording. Like his 2004 We Is: Live at the Bop Shop (recorded live at a record store in Rochester, NY) it doesn't have the best sound quality in El'Zabar's discography but it does carry an exciting immediacy.

"I like the atmosphere of the last records, it's like an old Blue Note, he said. "You hear the audience. There is a feeling that connects with people.

The River East show was released by Delmark as a CD and DVD and the latter is an important part of documenting El'Zabar's recent approach to producing his concerts. The setting features sculpture, projected video art and a painter creating a mural of the late comedian Richard Pryor. Young people are more accustomed to dance clubs and not "chemical relativity with live music, he said. "I didn't want people to sit and listen like at a concert. I told people to interact with the music, interact with the art, be social.

"We have to take responsibility and reinvent presenting, he added. "No one's really questioning presenting. It's just like 'Why are there less and less people?' [We need to] really address presenting and look at it in a tolerant, nonbiased way, all lend ourselves collectively and deal with radio and deal with webcasting and deal with TV. There's a need for opening, there's a need for connecting. That's how we'll connect people and that's what Trane was talking about, that's what Ayler was talking about. All these various transcendental gifts that go beyond the notes to get to this, I mean, c'mon!

But if at age 52 El'Zabar is focusing on building a younger audience, he's also suffering losses. Besides the deaths of bandmates Favors and Huff, he's seen the passing of some other great Chicago players. One of his strongest records, Sacred Love (Sound Aspects, 1985) featured the late Art Ensemble trumpeter Lester Bowie. In 2002, Delmark released Love Outside of Dreams, a trio with Murray and bassist Fred Hopkins, who died in 1999.

"We're just the last people of our generation, he said. "It's been so difficult to sustain and survive. Lester Bowie was one of my best friends. Malachi Favors was like a father. Fred Hopkins I grew up with. We're the 'in-between cats'. We were too old to be marketed as the young lions and we were too young to be marketed as the masters. Our time has come because we've survived.

Selected Discography

Kahil El'Zabar, Live at the River East Art Center (Delmark, 2004)

Kahil EL'Zabar, Love Outside of Dreams (Delmark, 2002)
Kahil El'Zabar/Bright Moments, Return of the Lost Tribe (Delmark, 1997)

Kahil El'Zabar/Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Dance with The Ancestors (Chameleon-Elektra, 1993)

Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio, Renaissance of the Resistance (Delmark, 1993)

Kahil El'Zabar/David Murray, Golden Sea (Sound Aspects, 1989)

Photo Credit
Marc Mohlrab

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