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Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Open Me: A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit


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Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Open Me: A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit
The first few bars of Open Me: A Higher Consciousness Of Sound And Spirit promise the listener is in for a treat. Corey Wilkes' muted trumpet plays Miles Davis' "All Blues" counterpointed by Alex Harding's rugged baritone saxophone and Kahil El'Zabar's ankle bells and kalimba. Here is Ethnic Heritage Ensemble in all its enchanting bare-bones singularity, barely a year since the release of the masterpiece Spirit Gatherer: A Tribute To Don Cherry (Spiritmuse).

Eighty minutes later, the promise of those opening moments has been kept. Like its predecessors, Open Me is grounded in contemporary realities while also touching on the cosmic beyond. It is spiritual jazz at its best, a journey into deep roots and future routes. When the album is released in early March 2024, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (EHE) will, if all has gone to schedule, have just completed a month-long tour of the US and Canada—the group has toured across North America every February, during Black History Month, each year since its foundation in 1974.

El'Zabar formed EHE shortly after the conclusion of his decade-long tenure as chair of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Originally a quintet, it soon settled down into a trio: El'Zabar on drums and percussion plus two horns. "I had a dream where I saw a massive elephant's face head-on," he says. "The ears became the two tenor saxophonists back-to-back, and I then appeared between them, as though my earth drum was the elephant's trunk in the middle. It was a powerful vision... Some people literally laughed at our unorthodox instrumentation and approach. We were considered even stranger than most AACM bands at the time." Fifty years on, El'Zabar is having the last laugh.

Of the 2024 lineup, Corey Wilkes signed on in the early 2000s and Alex Harding in 2018, after having played with El'Zabar since the early 2000s in groups such as Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As is his wont, El'Zabar has also added some guests, this time violinist and violist James Sanders and cellist Ishmael Ali. (Spiritual jazz in the US and UK is becoming increasingly fascinated with the cello. Abdul Wadud's totemic By Myself, released on Bishara in 1978, was in 2023 rereleased for the first time, on Gotta Groove Records.)

The material on Open Me includes "Great Black Music," often attributed to the AACM-affiliated Art Ensemble Of Chicago, but actually written by El'Zabar. There are two more El'Zabar evergreens in "Barundi" and "Hang Tuff," plus new originals. El'Zabar has always sought to include heritage material by other composers on EHE recordings and this time out, in addition to the contemplative "All Blues" are a deeply funky version of Eugene McDaniels's "Compared To What" (see the video below), which is the first single, and another of McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance."

El'Zabar talked to AAJ about EHE's mission in a 2022 interview which can be read here.

Track Listing

All Blues; Barundi; The Whole World; Return Of The Lost Tribe; Hang Tuff; Can You Find A Place; Great Black music; Passion Dance; Ornette; Compared To What; Kari; Open Me.


Corey Wilkes
Alex Harding
saxophone, baritone
Additional Instrumentation

Guests: Ishmael Ali: cello; James Sanders: violin, viola.

Album information

Title: Open Me: A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Spiritmuse




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