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Kahil El'Zabar's Latest Invitation - I Accept It Gladly Paul Mortimer's with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

Kahil El'Zabar's Latest Invitation - I Accept It Gladly

Paul Mortimer's with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

by Paul Mortimer, Contributor
first published: March, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

You can't pigeon-hole the EHE; El'Zabar's music resides in a jazz-blues avant-garde continuum, shifting textures around the changing personnel and focus of his many projects and collaborations.

LP Cover ArtKAHIL EL’ ZABAR
Open Me, A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit
(Spiritmuse Records)

Well, when I opened our review invitation to hear tracks from Kahil’s new album, I soon knew it was a unique left-field jazz-global release that would be cherished by those more adventurous music-lovers who ventured into this very distinctive and individual project. His Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (EHE) has taken on many incarnations, regularly refreshing its approach during the past 50 years.

You can’t pigeon-hole the EHE; El’ Zabar’s music resides in a jazz-blues avant-garde continuum, shifting textures around the changing personnel and focus of his many projects and collaborations.

The much-travelled El’ Zabar (born Clifton Blackburn, in Chicago, 1953) has contributed immeasurably over more than five decades as a composer, bandleader, percussionist with a whole array of great musicians, as well as with his own remarkable EHE, which has welcomed contributions from dozens of revered musicians.

Kahil himself has worked through many styles during his career, alongside such as Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, David Murray, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder…hell, I’m only scratching the surface!

The EHE’s current line-up comprises Kahil on many percussion items plus kalimba, trumpeter Corey Wilkes who entered the group twenty years ago, and baritone sax player Alex Harding who joined seven years ago.

EHE photoE H E, 2024: Corey, Kahil, Alex (Photo: Christopher Andrews) 

These seasoned colleagues distil their considerable skills on the ‘Open Me…’ album into many delicious interplays that keep you guessing as well as entertaining you. I really like this music!

On ‘Open Me…’, El’ Zabar adds further dimensions by augmenting the trio with string instruments: cello, played by Ishmael Ali, and violin/viola played by James Sanders. The addition of strings opens new textural resonances and timbral sounds, linking the sessions to traditions of improvising violin and cello exponents such as Ray Nance to Billy Bang, Leroy Jenkins, and Abdul Wadud. 

The lead track we received with the promo material for the ‘Open Me…’ album was the EHE’s version of one of my favourite jazz pieces, ‘Compared To What’, written by Eugene McDaniels but made famous by Roberta Flack’s cool soul cover and, especially for me, the explosive, spontaneous live performance from Montreux Jazz in 1969 by Les McCann & Eddie Harris. 

I first heard the McCann & Harris version on an Atlantic Records jazz sampler; their whole Montreux performance was released on two albums, as ‘Swiss Movement’ and ‘Second Movement’. I soon had to seek out those releases! Their blazing live version featured trumpeter Benny Bailey regaling McCann’s funky keyboard and Harris’s cool sax in a memorable and rapturously received show.

A new version of ‘Compared To What’ is therefore always of great interest to me – and this EHE take is a skittering, laconic, busy but accessible collision that will make you smile, tap your toes, nod your head and shout ‘Oh Yeah!’ as Kahil revisits the cutting social commentary in the lyrics.

The inclusion of this classic jazz track is even more significant to Kahil - because it was the favourite tune of his father, also a drummer (Clifton Blackburn Snr) and Kahil had cut his musical teeth upon his dad’s many jam sessions, regularly based upon ‘Compared to What’.

Go on – indulge yourself for eight-and-a-half minutes to watch the video of EHE’s cover version of ‘Compared To What’:

Just as that Atlantic sampler containing McCann & Harris’s storming version of ‘Compared To What’ led me to hunt down more music from those jazz luminaries, I hope that the video, and the rest of EHE’s Open Me, A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit’ album, provokes your own curiosity towards Kahil El’ Zabar’s earlier Spiritmuse Records releases and the many other fine recordings from elsewhere in his career.

The album also contains a mixture of originals, including some El’ Zabar evergreens such as “Barundi,” ‘Hang Tuff,’ ‘Ornette,” and “Great Black Music” (often attributed to the Art Ensemble of Chicago but is an El’ Zabar composition). There’s a further call back to jazz classics with the inclusion of the EHE’s unique and contemplative interpretation of Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues.’

As a milestone anniversary celebration of Kahil’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and a statement of future intent, ‘Open Me…’ effortlessly carries forward El’Zabar’s healing vision of a Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit. 

The striking cover art of the album features a lavish tapestry from Nep Sidhu, entitled ‘The Sound Sculpture Forms & Knowledge of Kahil El’Zabar’. It is as colourful and fascinating as Kahil’s music. 

Kahil’s EHE toured North America earlier this year to promote the album and celebrate the 50 years of their contributions – and I’m jealous of those across the Atlantic that were to see them live!

If you like unorthodox, funky jazz, give the EHE a try. I’m sure you’ll soon be looking for more of El’ Zabar’s diverse and comprehensive output from his many other collaborations down the years.

Open Me, A Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit - Track list
1. All Blues
2. Barundi
3. The Whole World
4. Return of The Lost Tribe
5. Hang Tuff
6. Can You Find A Place
7. Great Black Music
8. Passion Dance
9. Ornette
10. Compared to What
11. Kari
12. Open Me


Essentials
You can order, stream or download the ‘Open Me…’ album from Spiritmuse Records here→
Spiritmuse on the Bandcamp here→
Have a look at Kahil El’ Zabar’s fascinating website here→

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