Be Known: Ancient / Future / Music Review – A Masterpiece by Jazz Masters


Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar; photo by David W. Johnson

Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar is part of a long, proud history of influential Chicago musicians, performers and composers.  During the 1970’s, El’Zabar was the chairman of the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).  The AACM is the pioneering experimental jazz collective that was started here in Chicago half a century ago.  The group, always changing but never settling for conventions, pushed jazz music forward and inspired many, many well-known jazz musicians.  

Also, in the Seventies, El’Zabar formed The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.  The group has been together, in various forms, since then performing all over the world.  The group’s latest album Be Known: Ancient / Future / Music on Spiritmuse Records was released in May of 2019.

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s music “seeks to spark a time in which heightened sensibility and higher consciousness will universally be known”.  This is evident on this hour and a half long double-album that is packed with music that makes you think and makes you groove.

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Photo: Jim Quatrokki

The line-up on this record starts with Kahil El’Zabar on vocals, thumb piano, drums and percussion.  He is joined by Corey Wilkes on trumpet, Alex Harding on baritone sax, and Ian Maksin on cello.  

The album is a lesson on the interconnections of jazz and Afro-centric spiritual music.  The rhythms are traditional African rhythms and played on traditional African drums.  Complex cross rhythms and syncopations can readily be heard on this album.  It takes jazz all the way back to its roots in Africa.

During the song, Wish I Knew, the drumming is best heard with earphones as each ear hears a different drum pattern.  It is almost hypnotic.  

Corey Wilkes, also a Chicago Native,
cross-pollenates musical genres;
photo by Duane Savage

The bridge to modern times is Corey Wilkes, also a Chicago Native, and his horn playing.  His soulful notes can be heard gracing a variety of contemporary projects, including Hip Hop artists like DJ Logic.  That cross-pollenating of musical genres only strengthens his performance on this album by allowing his unique sensibilities to influence this work. 

If you want to listen to the massive talents of all these men, listen to the song Blew It.  It begins with Alex Hardings’ inspiring baritone sax performance and then Ian Maksin comes in with a perfectly timed cello solo, which sounds otherworldly.  Just when you thought it couldn’t get better, Wilkes’ trumpet takes over for a riveting solo and El’Zabar brings it home with the drums.  If you only listen to one song on the album, makes sure it’s this one as it showcases the best of the talent of these artists.

El’Zabar vocals are what really stand out on this album (and especially on the songs Black is Back and Pharaoh). They have an open tone and are natural.  Some would call them grunting – a non-language speech that everyone in the world understands.  The vocals raw, emotional and enthralling.  

Which leads to the sprit spiritual nature to the album that is, at times, hard to pin down.  Meaning, it is not overt or in your face – nothing on this record is.  It’s just sort of there.  You put this album on and it takes you to another place.  At times it feels like you are in transported back 400 years ago listening to drum beats under the stars, other times you are in a small jazz club surrounded by your best friends.  But at all times you feel like the music you are listening to is important because you are having the time of your life.

More about the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

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