Get H.I.P. with Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at Kerrytown Concert House
After graduating college and spending a year abroad in Ghana, Kahil El'Zabar came home to Chicago excited to tell his dad what he wanted to do with his life.
"I’m gonna play in a badass band," El'Zabar recalled telling him. "No bass, no piano, no guitar, no chromatic chordal instrument to set the tonic sensibility of the music."
His new vision called for a tonal center set by the "various rhythmic impulses" and "harmonic syntax of the music," African influences, and "urban contemporary expression" from his own experience.
"And he says, 'Man, it sounds hip, boy. But you’ll never make a living.'"
Forty-some years later, the jazz percussionist, composer, and bandleader's "hip" project, The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, is still going, as is his Ritual Trio. El'Zabar's resume also includes work with jazz giants Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and Archie Shepp as well as stints with Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. (His dad came around, too, by the way).
The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which for this tour includes longtime collaborator Corey Wilkes on trumpet and new baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, plays Ann Arbor's Kerrytown Concert House on Monday, February 27, as part of its "EHE, Let It Be Free 2017" tour.
At 63, El'Zabar doesn't seem to be slowing any. Talking by phone from a hotel in San Francisco earlier this month, he laid out his itinerary for the next few days: a second Bay-Area gig followed by a red-eye flight to Chicago and a drive to Champaign-Urbana for a show the next day, then back-to-back dates in Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Montreal.
"I think I’m very lucky, " he said. "I’m pretty healthy at my age, and I’m doing something I love to do."
It's a good time of year for the Ensemble to be on the road, where El'Zabar has spent every February since 1973.
"It became Black History Month about that time, and I had a band called 'The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble' that kind of fit everyone’s MO for what they wanted, so it ended up being a period where it was easy to book 20-plus concerts," El'Zabar said. "Especially in the '80s. It was like everybody had to have that band at that period."
Some cities and venues -- like Oakland's Eastside Arts Alliance -- have been on the tour every year from the start. Other stops, such as Washington, D.C., and Erie, Pennsylvania, are going on 20-plus years.
“We’ve really developed community, friendships, [and] relationships, and watched generations develop listening to The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble," he said.
El'Zabar credits early demand for the group to its range, clarity, and flexibility with limited instrumentation ("basically just two horns and a drum") as well as its commitment to relevant themes and historical references that connect with people.
"And we were fun," he said. "In the early ‘80s, before the classical jazz marketing idea came in, the so-called ‘avant-gardes’ were the heroes of the music, because people considered [us] really in the tradition of Charlie Parker or [Thelonious] Monk or pioneers that took a different approach than what was known. Toward the later '80s, the marketing of the 'correct way' to play the music was so heavily presented, and young players had almost a corporate sensibility at that point. I mean [they] even physically looked like bankers and accountants and lawyers, and things really, really changed."
El'Zabar played his first gig at 16, drumming with tenor saxman Gene Ammons, and he cited work with guys like Eddie Harris, Adderley, and Gillespie when he said, "I understand the importance of tunes, of bebop and hard bop, the importance of swing, which I think has been one of the successes of my music. At the same time, I didn’t see it as the badge of authority in regards to my value as a creative exponent of the music. What I learned from those obvious masters was a desire to extend the voice, to transcend the information into a new possibility, and to take pride in originality and individuality."
In the early '70s, El'Zabar joined Chicago's famed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and became its chairman in 1975. The nonprofit organization is best-known for fostering new takes on jazz, classical, and world music as well as its ties to great "out" players like Anthony Braxton, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams.
But it was a Chicago big-band leader named Bill Abernathy who, as a teenager, set El'Zabar on the atypical path from percussionist to composer and bandleader.
"He said, 'You have a real keen musical insight, and you’re a good percussionist, but if you learn to read and you learn theory, you can take your musical ideas and convey them to other people," El'Zabar said. "That stuck with me."
Drummers have often led bands -- Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Tony Williams to name just a few -- but percussionists are often sidelined to auxiliary, accompanist status.
"I try to bring the value of a kalimba or an African hand drum; that it can be a leading voice in a compositional setting, that it can be played off in terms of its melodicism," El'Zabar said. "There are several compositions where you’ll hear patterns that are structured, where they become the syntax of how the melody and, eventually, the solos reference from what I’m playing. And many times I’m the soloist in those kinds of settings as well."
With Harding in the mix for the first time on this trip, the group benefits from a fresh but familiar perspective. The Detroit-born, New York-based saxophonist was a student of Hamiet Bluiett, another of El'Zabar's longtime collaborators who has played with the Ensemble, and Harding's been playing in the Broadway production of Fela! about iconic Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti for years.
"He’s got all the Afrobeat stuff obviously down, he’s got all the trad-jazz stuff down, he has avant-garde sensibilities," El'Zabar said. "And what I love about him is that he’s a very loving person; that you can feel that energy in his playing, and he's extremely supportive with his instrument. My instrument a lot of times is associated with the rhythm section, so the pockets have been bananas, man."
Concertgoers can expect the group to cover a lot of ground, but there's a good chance they'll hear at least one familiar bebop number. For the last several years, the Ensemble has been doing its take on Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop," but this time out, the trio is digging into the "extraordinary changes and progressions" of Sonny Stitt's "The Eternal Triangle."
"The bop cats to me are just the epitome of what I call, 'The Highly Intelligent Perspective: H.I.P.' They were hip beyond being hip," El'Zabar said. "So we always try to investigate the hipness of that form and play it structurally, but with different instrumentation than people might be familiar with."
Another tune he's excited about is an original composition penned more than 25 years ago called "Great Black Music" that's never been fully realized until now.
"It’s always been a vamp, you know, just this groove, but I could never actually find the guys that could play all the nuances of the composition," he said. "We’re doing it now on tour, and it’s been knocking them out."
El'Zabar started booking this current run of gigs last August, but he says the subsequent election and recent national events have proven his instinct correct by naming the tour "Let It Be Free 2017."
"It’s a time to really value, and for Americans to educate themselves to, what the political significance of being free is supposed to be in accord with our constitution," El'Zabar said. "It’s really hit home with a lot of people, just a mantra of 'be free.'"
The tour name's original intent was more about breaking free from mediocrity, conspicuous consumption, and the mundane, and El'Zabar still hopes to encourage listeners in that way, too.
"It’s a consciousness-raising time," he said. "Any way I can be instrumental or useful or helpful in that way, I am a community servant."
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.
Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays Kerrytown Concert House on Monday, February 27, 8 pm. For tickets and more info, visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com. For El'Zabar's music and more, visit kahilelzabar.net.