Album of the Day: Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, “Be Known Ancient​/​Future​/​Music”

 

Percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar may not be as well known as his AACM forebears Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but his contribution to the continuum of black music has been huge. His two main groups, the Ritual Trio and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, create a bridge between jazz, the blues, and African rhythms and musical practices. He’s also collaborated extensively with David Murray, and worked with Pharoah Sanders and the late violinist Billy Bang.

The EHE included trombonist Joseph Bowie (brother of the Art Ensemble’s trumpeter, Lester Bowie, and founder of Defunkt) for many years, alongside saxophonist Ernest Dawkins; about ten years ago, trumpeter Corey Wilkes—who also plays with the Art Ensemble of Chicago—replaced Bowie. On this album, Dawkins is gone, and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding is in his place, and cellist Ian Maksin has joined the group, expanding it to a quartet.

Many tracks on Be Known Ancient/Future/Music are offered as tributes to artists, whether jazz musicians or kindred spirits, who have died, including pianists Cecil Taylor and Randy Weston, trumpeters Jerry Gonzalez, Roy Hargrove and Freddie Hubbard, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and playwright Ntozake Shange. El’Zabar plays drums, but also brings out various percussion instruments as well as the mbira, and while Maksin occasionally plays a bassist’s role, he’s more often a lead voice just like Wilkes and Harding. On “Blew It (for Hamiet Bluiett),” all three men let it rip in furious fashion. Other tracks, like “Pharoah” (a tribute to Pharoah Sanders, who’s still alive) are more meditative, but still passionate. What makes El’Zabar’s music so fascinating is that he seems to be honoring tradition, while stealthily doing something both unique and new.

-Philip Freeman

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