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For 49 Years, Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble Has Played–And Embodied–Black History

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

One of the great consolations of hanging around the music business stage door for a long time comes when people who assume that you know things ask you questions. One of my favorites is: Which band have you seen the most times? I love this question because it gives me a chance to talk about Kahil El’Zabar’s magnificent Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which is also my favorite band.

Now, for the first time since I moved to Cleveland in 2019, I get to talk about an upcoming concert of theirs that I will attend. It’s Wednesday, Feb. 1 at Convivium 33 Gallery, presented by the Cleveland Uncommon Sound Project and needless to say, if you’re reading this, you should go, too (full disclosure: I played a small part in making this concert happen). An Ethnics concert is never less than completely enjoyable and on any given night, it can be a transformative experience.

It was for me right from the jump. My first Ethnics show was at the Erie Art Museum Annex when El’Zabar on percussion was joined by Shaker Heights native Edward Wilkerson, Jr. and Joseph Bowie on tenor saxophone and trombone respectively. Those two instruments are among the most declamatory of power horns, but that night, on El’Zabar’s “How The Kau See Sirius” (the title is misspelled on the recording below), they seldom rose above a whisper. What was this?

The song, which rides a hypnotic pattern from El’Zabar’s mbira, a thumb piano, is dedicated to the elaborate and beautiful cosmology of Mali’s Kau people (sometimes called the Dogon) and the three musicians seemed to be transmitting to the rapt audience the secrets of the universe from an ancient place. It was a stupefying performance and I was hooked.

By the time the Ethnics made it to Erie in 1994 or 95 (I can’t remember exactly) they were already a veteran band. El’Zabar, at the time fresh out of Lake Forest College, put together a quintet in 1973 that included Wilkerson. One year later the band began a tradition of Black History Month concerts that was interrupted only by the COVID-19 outbreak, 49 years in all.

Personnel has varied over the last 50 years guitarist with guitarist Fareed Haque, keyboard player Justin Dillard, and legendary percussionist Harold Atu Williams  sharing  the Ethnics’ bandstand through the years. But the core of the ensemble since 1978 has been El’Zabar, who also sings in a sonorous baritone, and two horn players,currently Chicago trumpeter Corey Wilkes and Detroit-born baritone saxophonist Alex Harding.

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

Wilkes can bring down the fire when needed, but his use of space and dynamics is firmly in the lineage of masters from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), such as Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell, in whose Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wilkes was a member.

Harding is a saturnine presence on the big horn. He can muse thoughtfully on a ballad or lay down a propulsive rhythm in the bass-less trio in the manner of his teacher, the Motown session saxophonist Thomas “Beans” Bowles.Both players are a generation younger than El’Zabar, who will turn 70 in November.

“Lord have mercy,” El’Zabar exclaimed when I reminded him of the coming milestone. “You know, we were a couple of weeks ago in New York, and the audience now is like, 18 or 19 to early 20s. So, at this age and having this entirely new young group of people into the music is just pretty interesting.”

That group sometimes includes his bandmates too. Chicago tenor saxophonist Isaiah Collier who was on the Ethnics’ European tour last fall, was a high school classmate of El’Zabar’s son’s. “Two years ago Isaiah was still calling me Mr. El’Zabar,” he said. Once Collier entered the band, the leader told him, “You can’t really call me that anymore, because, I mean, we play together. So  call me Kahil.” Collier’s response was “Okay, Mr. Kahil.”

Musing on his longevity, El’Zabar said, “I just never thought I’d be at this stage of my life when I was playing with Dizzy [Gillespie] when I was 24 or 25.” Perhaps not, but for all the wisdom he’s gained in the interim, El’Zabar has lost none of his ability to generate deep grooves with nothing more than a tiny, hand-held mbira or the massive earth drum. Once in a while, he’ll fold his lanky frame behind the trap kit where his splashy, extroverted style alchemizes venerable jazz lines, such as Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” into joyous praise songs.

The motto of the AACM, for which El’Zabar once served as chairman, is “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future.” And that’s a pretty good way to describe an Ethnics concert, too. It’s just a humbling time right now,” El’Zabar said. “You acknowledge the mortality of all, and then you do what you do. And whether you accept it or not, you will keep moving.”

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 8 p.m., Convivium 33 Gallery, 1433 E. 33rd St., Cleveland. $20 at the door (no one will be turned away for lack of funds). Sunday, Feb. 5, 4 p.m., City Gallery, 1503 State St., Erie, Pennsylvania. $25.


Trading Fours

There’s never a bad time to get out and commune in the same room with creative musicians. Below are four musical events of interest in the coming week that you might want to check out.

Ernie Krivda’s Fat Tuesday Big Band, with Evelyn Wright, Mike Cady and Erin Kechan
Friday, Feb. 3, 6 p.m.
BLU Jazz+, 47 E. Market St. Akron (tickets)

Fat Tuesday isn’t until Feb. 21 this year, but Ernie Krivda had another celebration in mind when convening his big band this month. It’s his 78th birthday and he’s invited three vocalists to the Blu Jazz+ party. Seventy-eight is a lot of candles, but the band, which includes some of NEO’s finest players, should be more than up to the task of blowing them out.

CB3: The Chris Burge Trio
Friday, Feb. 3, 7 p.m.
Jimmy’s Place Upstairs, 8154 Columbia Rd., Olmsted Falls (tickets)

Saxophone trios weren’t as common in the era of speakeasies as they are today, but who cares? Fortunately, one can buy an adult beverage legally these days and one can also enjoy the unique flexibility and ranginess that the saxophone trio affords. Better yet, one can do both at the same time at Jimmy’s Place this weekend when Chris Burge and his bandmates, Dr. Dave Thomas on piano and bassist Kip Reed climb the stairs at the Prohibition-themed Olmstead Falls boîte. Secret password not required for admission.

Theron Brown Trio
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2 p.m.
Cleveland Public Library, 325 Superior Ave., Cleveland (free)

Pianist Theron Brown, bassist Jordan McBride and drummer Zaire Darden have been playing together for a while now and it shows. Their effortless swing and quick-reflex responsiveness is a consistent pleasure at any price, but when they convene for a free concert like this one, it’s a circle-the-date affair.

Tim Lekan Quintet
Sunday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m.
Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave, Cleveland (tickets)

For those listeners who can’t get enough of Brown and Darden–and that should be everyone–they’ll reunite with bassist Lekan in a classic quintet lineup with Tom First on tenor and trumpeter Tommy Lehman for a program of originals and Joe Henderson tunes. Hard swinging is guaranteed.

Information for this section came from Jim Szabo’s essential, weekly Northeast Ohio jazz calendar , NEO’s most complete list of jazz and jazz-adjacent events.

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