Monday, February 13, 2017

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

[Kahil El’Zabar, Corey Wilkes, Alex Harding. Photograph by Michael Leddy. Click for a larger view.]

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Urbana, Illinois
February 9, 2017

Kahil El’Zabar: cajón, drumkit, footbells, mbira, voice
Alex Harding: baritone saxophone
Corey Wilkes: trumpet

Kahil El’Zabar last visited the Krannert Center in 2008, with the Ritual Trio and guest musician Hamiet Bluiett. Last week El’Zabar returned with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, founded in 1973. The Ensemble’s continuing premise: two horns and percussion (originally, saxophonists Edward Wilkerson and Ernest Khabeer Dawkins and El’Zabar). In a pre-performance talk, El’Zabar told the story of bringing his father on an Ensemble tour in 1986. Would people really turn out to hear nothing more than two horns and percussion? Indeed, they did, and still do.

“Nothing more than”: in other words, what a listener won’t find is the familiar rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, or just bass and drums. But there’s nothing missing in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s sound, which is full of color and texture. Much of that is due to El’Zabar, who provides a constant commentary as he plays: singing, scatting, humming, grunting, stomping, and shouting encouragement. (“Go to Texas!” he told Alex Harding at one point.) Harding’s baritone adds another layer of commentary, one that looks back to the earliest jazz traditions, in which the tuba (or sometimes bass saxophone) assumed the role later taken over by the string bass.

Here is one example of the ensemble in action: in “All Blues,” El’Zabar set a groove for the deepest sort of slow blues with nothing more than footbells, stomps, and mbira. Harding’s baritone added an element of R&B to the tune’s familiar vamp, and the vamp resurfaced behind Wilkes’s solo and in Harding’s own solo. Like El’Zabar, Harding and Wilkes are master musicians: Harding’s huge tone and rhythmic drive suggest both Harry Carney and Hamiet Bluiett; Wilkes’s playing ranges from boppish complexities to Miles-isms to shakes, wails, and, at one point, a 180-degree blast of plain air.

Some especially bright moments: El’Zabar soloing on mbira, sounding something like, say, John Lee Hooker worrying a handful of notes; El’Zabar stepping down from the bandstand to scat and dance; Harding interpolating “Lester Leaps In” when soloing in “The Eternal Triangle,” an invitation taken up by the other musicians; Wilkes’s baby daughter responding to the sound of her father’s Harmon mute. And one more: El’Zabar preaching during “Pharoah Sanders”: “We can never win with pessimism. Even in dark times, we need optimism.”

The tunes: “All Blues” (Miles Davis), “The Eternal Triangle” (Sonny Stitt), “Little Sunflower” (Freddie Hubbard), “Pharoah Sanders” (El’Zabar), “Freedom Jazz Dance” (Eddie Harris).

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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble : Kahil El’Zabar : Alex Harding : Corey Wilkes

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